Sunday, September 26, 2010

Elderberries and the Ethics of Foraging

Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) were new to me.  I'd made the acquaintance of elderflowers in the form of some divine mixed drinks, but I had no idea what to expect of the berry.  It turns out they're like mini blueberries, with potent medicinal uses and off-the-charts antioxidants.  A delicious superfood that grows locally?  When I got a tip that the last elderberries of the season could be found in a foraging-friendly spot, I rounded up my posse.

My source seemed reliable, but still I was worried.  What if we'd driven all that way to find shriveled up berries, or bushes stripped clean?  I didn't want to disappoint my Homesteading Circle.

In search of Blue Elderberries (Sambucus nigra ssp cerulea) we followed a creekside trail, coming across cones full of pine nuts and bright red rose hips (expect future postings on these gems).  We only found a few elderberry bushes long past their prime.  I was starting to feel a little sad, in spite of the sunny day and the bag full of other gleanings.

Suddenly, we hit the motherlode.  We came across a huge bush, twice my height, heavy with plump ripe berries.  There were so many that we filled four bags full and still left plenty for the birds. 

The Ethics of Foraging, or How Not to be a Jerk

Before I go any farther, I want to mention a few points –  basic courtesies really – to help ensure that you're not harming plants, local ecosystems, or yourself.

  • Know where to go. Foraging is illegal in most protected natural areas, and harvesting elderberries in East Bay Regional Parks will get you a $500 ticket.  Don't do it.
  • Respect endangered plants. Many popular medicinals have fragile populations that need conservation, not harvesting.
  • Harvest lightly. Know how to gather from a plant in a way that doesn't damage its ability to reproduce for the next year.  An example would be leaving the base of certain mushrooms in the soil to regenerate for next year.
  • Be mindful of the surroundings.  Instead of trampling surrounding plants or creating erosion in a mad rush to collect, leave the ecosystem intact.
  • Save some for others.  It's bad form to strip an area clean.  Other animals and humans may rely on this plant as well.  Good foraging stewards leave some bounty behind.
  • Don't poison yourself! Never harvest a plant unless you are 100% sure of its identification, proper processing and uses.  Berries especially can be tricky.

For instance, the leaves, stems and unripe berries of the elderberry plant are poisonous - all except the ripe berries and flowers. It sounds dire, I know, but it just means you need to be meticulous in removing all those little stems before you get to the good part. The processing did take forever, even with advice I'd been given to freeze the elderberries which supposedly makes it easier for them to be separated from their stem.  I don't think I froze them long enough, and hours later I was still picking off tiny bits of leaf and stem.

Syrup, liqueur, jelly

 I had such an amazing quantity of these beautiful berries that I was able to make three different recipes with them: a honeyed syrup, a vodka-lemon peel liqueur, and 3 small jars of jelly.  The “syrup,” made with honey from our bees, was incredibly delicious and more like a soda. Due to the elderberry's medically proven anti-viral properties, I had planned to save the syrup for flu season, but we finished it within a few days. It was irresistible.  I'm hoping the liqueur will turn out as well.

Simple Elderberry Liqueur
1 pint fresh elderberries
1 quart vodka
Several curlicues of lemon rind
1/3 c. sugar

Place the elderberries into a quart jar, add lemon rind and sugar, and fill to the top with vodka.  The berries don't need to be crushed.  Shake the jar to distribute the sugar, then leave it in a darkened space for at least a month.  The longer you leave it, the darker it gets.  Shake it whenever you think about it; once a week is great.  The result is perfect for both winter flu season and cocktail parties – how often can you say that?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Apple Butter & the Economics of Canning

Friends are pressing apples for cider this weekend, and I was served a slice of birthday apple pie last night, so apples must be in season. No one in my Homesteading Circle has an apple tree, but several of us have very particular taste memories of apple butter, and we wanted to try making some.  We decided to turn to the Bay Area Homestead Hookup to help us make it happen.

Are you part of the Bay Area Homestead Hookup* yet?  It's a listserv put together to link people who share interests in homesteading locally. A friend put out a request on the email list for extra fruit, and got back an offer of ripe apples on a tree in South Berkeley. 

I have been trying hard to forage my fruit – from trees in the yards of neighbors or trees planted in medians and abandoned lots.  Why?  Partially because it kills me to see good fruit go to waste.  But I also forage because of the economics of homesteading.

The Break-Down

Canning is hot these days, right?  Putting up preserves is as popular as it's been since the Great Depression.  Although the trend is undoubtedly inspired in part by our current recession, it's not necessarily a good way to save money – unless you're smart about it.  Tally it up: If you buy six 8-oz canning jars (about $1/jar) and eight lbs organic fruit to fill them at the Berkeley Farmer's Market  ($3/lb), that's $30 total so far, not counting pectin, sugar or spices, and of course not counting your labor.  So it's at least $5/jar.  That's a steal if you compare it to artisanal jams like Blue Chair at $12 for a 6 oz jar, but at the supermarket you can get pretty good jam for $3.50. 

I don't think canning, or homesteading in general, has to be merely the domain of hipsters with a bad case of rural nostalgia. I think having the skills to preserve your harvest is an important part of food security, and can actually save you money, if you do it right. I don't want canning to be just a cute, expensive hobby. 

So I started to forage.  Farmers will sometimes give you crazy deals at the end of Farmer's Markets, or you can also go to Pick-Your-Own farms. But foraging is clearly best.  Plus the thrill of adventure you get on a good foraging run is priceless – and by that I mean meeting your neighbors, using wasted resources, and being in marginal spaces. No need to break the law for this, folks. 

Back to the Apple Butter, please

Of course, there are lots of other reasons to can.  I take pleasure in knowing the particular tree which made the apples that cooked down into that delicious applesauce I'm eating tonight.  I love the whole house suddenly smelling like fall as the cinnamon & fresh nutmeg cook down with the apples into thick, spreadable fruit butter. I love the social relationships that deepen as the bowls of skins and cores rise higher, little by little. I appreciate being able to give that moment of the season, preserved in glass, as gifts to people I love. 

Here's the recipe.  A warning: apple butter cooks for an incredibly long time – like five hours, no way to get around it.  So start early if you don't want to be up all night (or just go to bed and finish it in the morning, which is what I did).

Traditional Apple Butter
adapted from Ball's Complete Book of Home Preserving
6 lbs apples
3 c. water
3 c sugar
2+ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground nutmeg

Quarter the apples (no need to peel or core if you have a food mill because you'll essentially strain them out later.  If no food mill in sight, commit to the peeling & coring). Place the apples and water into a stainless steel saucepan, and bring to a boil.  It's important that the pan has a thick bottom because you don't want the fruit to burn on the bottom during it's long simmer time. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring occasionally, until apples are soft, about 30 minutes. 

Transfer to the food mill in batches, moving the hand crank around and around until you've sifted out all the peels and seeds (I love food mills.  So pleasingly low-tech). Or if you've cored and peeled the apples and are using a food processor, puree lightly just until a uniform texture is achieved (don't blast it out of existence). Wash the original saucepan before adding the resulting puree, or just use a new one (remember, sticking can be a problem, so you want a clean pot).  Stir in sugar and spices. 

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently, until mixture thickens and “holds its shape on a spoon.”  Which basically means, it doesn't slide right off, and it looks and tastes like apple butter.  Like I said, this can take forever. 

Then, the canning!  If you're new at this, it's good to watch a video online or take a class (they have relatively inexpensive ones at the Institute of Urban Homesteading).  I won't give all the exciting details here, but it's basically to boil the jars and lids, ladle the apple butter in, seal them, then boil the filled jars for another 10 minutes.  Not at all hard once you've gotten the hang of it.

*To subscribe to the Bay Area Homestead Hookup, send an email to

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My Goat Milking Technique is Unstoppable

Good news - the expanded version of my article on Bay Area goat owners, originally published here at Oakland Local, will be in the upcoming issue of Edible East Bay!  Look out for it in November.  I loved writing this article because quirky urbanites and goats seem to go together..

Here's a preview of the recipe I include in the article:

Molly's Chevre
5 quarts goat milk
1/4 c. fresh cultured buttermilk
1/3 c. cold water
3 drops liquid rennet

Optional flavorings:
1 tsp salt
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp Italian Seasoning

Heat the goat's milk to 90 degrees. (Yes, you do need a thermometer for this.  Winging it just won't work).  Add the buttermilk, stir, and let the pot sit for 15 minutes off the heat.

In a separate bowl, combine the cold water and rennet.  Add three tablespoons of the water-rennet mixture to the goat's milk (and save the rest in your refrigerator for next time).  Stir for three minutes, cover, and let it sit for twelve hours at room temperature. 

Cut the curds into 1/2 inch cubes.  (If you've never cut curds before, check out the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, which has tutorials in their recipes.)  Let the curds sit for an additional twelve hours at room temperature.

Drain through a cheesecloth, hanging until 1/3 of curds remain.  Mix in seasonings to taste - or experiment with your own!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Foraging Report : End-of-Summer Peaches

I've recently joined a Homesteading Circle, and I'm still on a high about it.

For our first meeting we picked a plum tree clean, ending up with huge bowls and buckets full of plums that we converted into plum chutney.  Projects like canning large quantities of fruit can be tedious alone (pitting all those plums!) but are perfect to do in groups.  It's what our grandmothers did, right?  Hours later, the kitchen smelled like cloves and condensation ran down the kitchen windows, and we had jewel-like jars of deep-purple goodness.

But I actually want to tell you about the peaches.

A friend from my Homestead Circle tipped me off to a peach tree in a vacant lot near Ashby BART that she hadn't been able to harvest before she left town.  I was excited enough that, despite the blast-furnace heat, we decided to head over with our improvised fruit picker - a long wooden pole with a basket at the end, with a claw made from twisted-wire to grab the fruit above it.  (It works ok. But a real fruit picker is definitely on my Christmas list.)

It was the end of the season for this tree, and at first we thought we had come too late.  We gathered about 20 in the end, and their smell kept wafting up at me all the way home. Foraged fruit is likely to be less perfect than what you'll find in the supermarket, but if you're willing to overlook a few blemishes, you'll be richly rewarded.  We ended up with more than enough for a pie.

After we cut off the bruises, we had a disagreement about whether you can leave the skins on for a pie.  I was shocked to hear it was a possibility - I remember my mother skinning peaches growing up, and I'd never thought to do it differently.  My partner convinced me that peach skins will basically melt during their time in the oven and it would be silly to spend the time peeling them, especially when there are more nutrients in the peel anyway.  Still skeptical, I decided to go along with it.