This month was really stressful. We had a bunch of stuff going on that’s not really worth going into. The only reason I bring it up is to say how it really is so nice when life is being overly complicated and then you find an absolutely gigantic patch of wild grapes that have set the most beautiful, luscious, deep purple clusters of fruit, and then you can be like:
HEY! Instead of stressing out about all this other stuff, I’m gonna spend the afternoon picking grapes and making jelly. If I wanna blow off the everything that I’m supposed to be doing and make jelly instead then DAMMIT I’m going to because I’m a grown woman and who can stop me SO THERE.
I still can’t believe that these grapes are wild. Most of the ones I’ve seen in the past wouldn’t really set fruit in bunches; it would just be a few random grapes here and there on the vines. The main difference between wild and cultivated grapes are the size of the seeds. Wild grapes’ skins slip off the same way concord grape skins do, but the seed inside is huge and there’s not much to the fruit. The flavor is intense, though, and perfect for making jelly. The color of the finished preserve is gorgeous and the taste is dark, tart and wonderful. (Actually, it really reminds me of the tiny, tart wild blackberries that grow in the exact same area earlier in the summer.)
Wild grapes have lots of pectin on their own and are a good candidate for a no-added pectin jelly. The set on those jellies really is nicer than jellies with added commercial pectin, but you really need to add a lot of sugar to make the no pectin batches gel. I prefer adding low-sugar commercial pectin to the grape juice so that I can use less sugar and have a shorter cooking time (which often preserves the flavor of the fresh fruit a little better). I made some wild blackberry-plum jelly earlier this year without any added commercial pectin, and it’s good, but it’s just so sweet.
WILD GRAPE JELLY, adapted from the Sure-Gel low sugar pectin insert that comes in the box
Makes: 6 half pint jars
Cook Time: 1 hr. plus overnight
First, make the grape juice. Wash the grapes and remove them from the stems. Put them in a large, nonreactive pot and add just enough water to cover them. Simmer the grapes for about half an hour. Once they start softening up, mash them with a potato masher to release their juice. After 30-45 minutes, pour them into a jelly bag to drain overnight. (Or, use cheesecloth. or a clean pillowcase. I like this description of using a pillowcase instead of a proper jelly bag. I just slip mine over the top of a pot and tie off the excess fabric underneath the pot, if that makes any sense.)
I had 16 cups of grapes and cooked them in 8 cups of water, which ended up yielding about 5 cups of juice.
STEP TWO: making the jelly
5 c. prepared wild grape juice
3 cups plus 1/4 c. sugar
1 box of sure-gel low sugar pectin
Prepare boiling water canner, jars and lids.
Whisk together the pectin with 1/4 c. of sugar. In a large, nonreactive pot, whisk together the grape juice and the pectin/sugar mixture. Cook on high heat until the grape juice comes to a full, rolling boil. Stir in the rest of the sugar and bring the jelly back to a full boil. Boil hard for 1 minute.
Ladle hot jelly into prepared jars leaving 1/4″ headspace. Wipe rims and attach lids, then process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes, adjusting for altitude as necessary. This happens to be the first time I’ve tried out tattler lids… and I love them. They’re BPA free and reusable, which is great. Throwing away all those metal lids always seems like a bummer, and really, I haven’t seen any pinterest projects for repurposing them that actually look like anything work making.
I am an elderflower fiend. If I’m at a fancy bar that has signature cocktails and there’s anything with elderflower liqueur, I’m instantly sold. Usually on more than one of them, since St. Germain is delicious even on pancakes. The unfortunate part is that I usually can only find these lovely drinks at really fancy places, which I rarely go to, and that even though they’re delicious, one cocktail usually costs in the range of $14-$18, which means that you better bring some cash if you want to sit around and have a few of them. These are a few of the reasons that I often embark on preserving missions. I know that making it myself is cheaper and yields a larger quantity than buying it at the store.
Elder trees are less prolific on the west coast than on the east coast, where I grew up. I vividly remember the intoxicating smell of the flowers on my parents property when I was just a teeny little muffin.
It took some searching here in Northern California but elder trees are, in fact, here. I saw one in my neighbor’s vineyards and another one next to the Russian River along Hwy. 101. The best specimen was at the Ag. Department of a local college, where they had been lovingly tending a huge tree for years (thank you Karen!). I picked a bag of blossoms early in the morning, when the sun was just warming the flower buds. The smell is . . . divine. It smells like the summer solstice, and birds singing, and sunshine, if those things all had smells. Cooking with it is the epitome of cooking with flowers.
Most elderflower cordial recipes are fairly simple. Make a syrup. Pour boiling syrup over blossoms and lemon slices, and let steep for 2-3 days. Coincidentally, the day I went to make the cordial, I couldn’t find my lighter and the pilot on my stove had gone out (an off-the grid propane stove that we don’t always keep lit anyway). Hence the “sun” part of this recipe. If you live somewhere rainy feel free to harness the power of your stovetop as I have harnessed the power of the sun.
Elderflower Sun Cordial
Makes: 6 half pint jars
Cooking time: 2 days inactive cooking, 30 minutes active cooking
6 c. water
2 lbs. sugar
20 large elderflower heads
2 lemons, thinly sliced
2 tbs. citric or absorbic acid*
1. Rinse elderflower heads in cool running water and drain.
2. Combine all the ingredients in a large glass bowl. The sugar and water won’t dissolve together right away, but give the mixture a stir anyway. Cover with a plate or some saran wrap to make sure that no bugs can get in to your cordial.
3. Put the cordial in a very sunny spot to warm the bowl. Give it a stir every few hours to combine the sugar and water into a syrup. The smell will be intoxicating and you will be thrilled with how the project is going at this point.
4. After about 2 days of full sun, strain the syrup through a cheesecloth. You can either freeze, refrigerate or can the syrup at this point. There are rumors on the internet about un-canned syrup being shelf stable because of the citric acid, but there are also rumors about it fermenting and jars exploding, so I’m not going to try it. To can the syrup, as I did (I found my lighter the next day):
Heat up boiling water canner and sterilize jars and lids. Bring syrup to a boil. Pour hot syrup into hot jars leaving 1/4″ headspace. Wipe rims clean and attach lids. Process for 10 minutes.
Please note: I’ve never canned this before, and I found a whole array of recipes with differing instructions for storing the cordial. This is my very educated guess. If it doesn’t go well, I’ll update this post. I’m also pretty sure that you could add a little more sugar and some powdered pectin to make elderflower jelly if you’d rather make that than beverages.
*Citric acid and absorbic acid both are natural preservatives that can usually be found in the bulk section of big health food stores. I’ve found recipes using both types of acid, so my second educated guess is that they’re essentially interchangeable. Don’t be mad at me if I’m wrong, though.
The Obvious Next Step: Sparkling Elderflower-Grapefruit Cocktails
This was inspired by a cocktail I had at the W Hotel in New Orleans, since we can’t always be on vacation, let alone buying drinks at a fancy bars. They served a slightly different version in a martini glass, but we use big girl cups on the farm.
Makes: 1 quart sized jar cocktail (it’s more efficient that way, because you’re definitely going to be making multiples of this one)
Cooking time: 3 minutes once you’ve got all the ingredients
2 shots of vodka (or you can use gin, that works well too)
2 shots of elderflower cordial
1 c. seltzer water
a splash of grapefruit juice
6 very thinly sliced cucumber wedges
Combine all the ingredients in your jar and mix well. If you’re fancy and have a cocktail shaker, you can go that route and pour it in a martini glass and garnish with a cucumber wedge.
These spaetzle were the side dish that I made with my wild duck cacciatore the other day. The recipe is from Hunter Gardener Angler Cook, one of my favorite sources for information about hunting and foraging. Hank Shaw creates beautiful, upscale recipes for wild foods, and has a book coming out that you can be sure will be on my kitchen shelf. Finding the Forgotten Feast is on pre-order at Amazon.com here. His recipes are for dishes that you’d except to find in a high-end restaurant using expensive ingredients, and it never ceases to amaze me that the ingredients are actually all around us, waiting for us to find them. If you take some time and learn what to look for, anyone can make forage and cook this food.
Wild stinging nettles are high in Iron, Vitamin C, and many other vitamins and minerals. They grow throughout the United States in a variety of areas, often in the woods with filtered or full sunlight. I’ve seen them in growing in open fields and among the Eucalyptus trees near the beach, too. This website has some good pictures of nettles in the wild. Don’t forget- when you’re foraging for wild plants, make sure that the area hasn’t been contaminated in any way, whether by pesticides, run-off from a nearby road, or, if you live at my house, pets (dog pee isn’t toxic, but it sure it gross to think about eating it).
There are only a couple of ingredients for this recipe: flour, nutmeg, a little salt and sugar, fresh eggs and some stinging nettles. The nettles function very much like spinach, so if you really can’t get your hands on any, you could substitute either fresh spinach or frozen chopped spinach.
Whenever I tell people about nettles, I get a lot of comments along the lines of “Yeah, you’re insane, have you touched those things? No way am I eating that.” I swear to you though, as long as they’re cooked, you’re totally fine and will NOT end up going to the hospital with stingers in your throat. I promise. It is, however, incredibly important that you protect your hands and arms when you pick them, because those little suckers inflict some serious pain if you touch them when they’re raw. I wear heavy gloves and a long sleeved shirt or coat and it works fine. After you pick them, put them straight into some kind of container where you won’t touch them, like a tupperware or a thick bag. From there they go straight into boiling water.
You’ll want to have two pots of water boiling. First you blanch the nettles for about 3 minutes to remove the stingers and clean off any dirt or bugs that might be hiding in the leaves. The nettles are now safe to handle with your bare hands. In between blanches, shock them in an ice bath to keep the greens from overcooking and maintain their bright green color. The second pot of boiling water finishes cooking the nettles.
The nettles I was able to forage were on the older side, but it doesn’t mean they’re unusable. Their stems were tough and fibrous and they had started going to seed. If you run into this, just run your fingers along the stem to separate the leaves from the stem (just like cooking with big kale leaves). The seeds might get mixed in with your greens, but you won’t notice in the final product. Feed the stems to the chickens or put them in the compost.
Once you’ve actually got the nettles processed and ready to cook with, you can either puree them or chop them up finely. The original recipe on Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said to puree them with the milk, but my blender just broke, so we’re not doing that.
Squeeze out the water with a clean dishcloth or a paper towel.
Now combine the nettles with the other wet ingredients, milk and beaten eggs. I happened to be out of cow milk when I made these and so I used soy milk instead. I know, I know, eew, soy. The recipe turned out fine though. I also was distracted and put in three eggs instead of the two that the original recipe called for, and the recipe turned out fine.
Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, forming a sticky, moist batter. It reminded me of the consistency of a wet biscuit dough.
Transfer the dough to into a colander.
The next step sounds a lot simpler and cleaner written down in a recipe than it actually is. Hold the colander over the pot of boiling water, and push the batter through the holes so that little pieces fall off into the boiling water. You probably will end up with a big sticky mess, like I did:
The problem was that the individual piece didn’t want to fall off the colander (maybe it was the accidental extra egg?) It still works though, just take a small knife and flick the individual pieces into the water. It will be sloppy. The point of spaetzle, though, is not to have perfect, uniform dumplings. The irregular, rustic shapes adds to the charm of this rustic dish. Just roll with it.
The spaetzle will float to the top when they’re almost done cooking, almost like gnocchi or other fresh pastas. I worked in batches, pulling out the cooked spaetzle and putting them in an ice bath while I waited for the other batches to finish cooking.
Drain off the ice water. The spaetzle will hold well in the fridge for several days at this point. To serve, I give them a quick saute in some butter with garlic and fresh cracked black pepper.
To read the original recipe, written by Hank Shaw, go here. This is my very slightly adapted version.
cooking time: about 40 minutes, with 10 minutes of active cooking time
1 c. blanched stinging nettles, finely chopped
1 c. milk (soy milk will work as well as traditional cow milk)
3 medium eggs, beaten (the original recipe calls for 2 eggs)
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
2 tsp. salt
To process the nettles: Bring pots of water to a boil to blanch the nettles. Liberally season the water in both pots with salt. Put about one pound of unprocessed nettles into the water, being careful to transfer the nettles from their holding container and into the water without touching them (to avoid being stung). Cook for 3 minutes. Drain the nettles, and transfer into an ice-bath. Wait 1-2 minutes to let the nettles cool. Remove from ice water, and wring out any excess water. Put the blanched nettles into the second pot of water, and cook for 2-5 minutes depending on the age (cook young nettles for just a few minutes, older ones need more time to become tender). Drain, and rinse with cold water. Strip the leaves from the stalks and discard the stalks, and pat dry with a paper towel or dish cloth.
Combine dry ingredients in one bowl. Whisk together finely chopped, dried nettles, eggs, and milk in another bowl. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix until combined. The dough should be wet and sticky, but hold together.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil for cooking the spaetzle. Transfer the dough to a colander. Holding the colander over the boiling water, push the dough through the colander so that little pieces fall into the water. Use a small knife to flick off any stragglers that don’t fall right away. The spaetzle will float to the top of the water, let them boil for another minute, and then they’re done. It’s easiest to work in batches, pushing through about 1/3 of the batter into the water at a time. Remove the spaetzle from the water with a slotted spoon and transfer to an ice-water bath. Keep going until all the batter is cooked and all the spaetzle is in the ice-water bath. Drain the spaetzle and hold in the refrigerator for up to three days before serving. The quality, of course, will be the best if you serve them that day.
To serve, heat a tablespoons of butter in a saute pan with some minced garlic, add in the spaetzle, and cook until heated through. Feel free to add mushrooms, scallions, cream, or anything else that’s exciting to you. These are delicious little noodles and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!