Monday, January 28, 2013

A Little Taste of May in January

January is when I really dig into the food stores and start using up my preserves from last season. I'm tiring of winter squash and root vegetables but know that there are still many more weeks of them in my diet yet. Craving all those greens and wild foods I put up last summer, I poke around my pantry shelves and freezer, looking for a little variety to add my standard daily fair. Enter the grape leaf and sweet memories of perfect May days when I gathered them.

 Ah yes, these will do just nicely!  I thawed a stack of 20.  (I like to freeze the grape leaves in small amounts because they are somewhat time consuming to fill and facing 40 or 50 thawed grape leaves at a time is a food prep slog I'd rather avoid.  If I'm serving a large group I just take out multiple packs.)  These leaves were in perfect shape, the long months of freezing tenderizing them.
The filling that goes into stuffed grape leaves is limited only by your imagination.  Recipes abound online, especially from traditional Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines.  I have a lot of food allergies and have to make do with many dietary restrictions, so my filling was a very simple saute of acorn squash, grated carrots and zucchini, mixed with Grazing Days ground beef, cooked and seasoned.

I stuff my grape leaves by carefully separating a thawed leaf, taking a dollop of filling and placing it in the middle of the leaf.  Then I fold the base up and over.
Then the sides are wrapped up.
Everything gets tucked in and rolled up, with the pointy tip of the leaf sealing everything into a nice little package!
I then briefly steam my stuffed grape leaves and serve 'em  up!
I'm so glad I put in those few hours last spring, harvesting, cleaning and freezing grape leaves, and I will definitely savour my supply and eagerly look forward to this year's harvest.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Evergreens Forever

Happy New Year to all!  I love this time of year.  Deep winter is when I get to slow down, read more, craft more and enjoy being a total homebody.  It's the season for endless pots of tea, naps, novels and seed catalogues.  It's also a nice time for walking in the forest to do a little winter wildcrafting. 

The ADG and I bused out to the south end of the city on the weekend to stroll through the Pine Grove. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of pine trees here, as well as other evergreens.  I like harvesting evergreens in the winter, when there's not much else going on, although you can gather any time during the year, especially in the spring, when there is fresh new growth.  Spring is the best time for young spruce tips.
Pictured here clockwise from top left is red pine, Scots pine, a spruce (not sure which one yet, maybe white?), and white cedar. 

Most conifers have edible and medicinal uses.  (The yew tree, which some botanists don't consider a true conifer, because it does not produce a seed-bearing cone, is poisonous.)  The conifers are rich in vitamin C and antioxidant flavonoids.  Early explorers to North America suffering and dying of scurvy were cured when the Native Americans taught them how to make tea from the needles of evergreens.  I love infusing pine and spruce needles into apple cider vinegar to extract all the vitamins and minerals.  Use it wherever you would use balsamic vinegar.

Rich in essential oils and terpenes, such as pinene and limonene, evergreens tend to have an antiseptic, decongestant and expectorant effect in the upper respiratory tract, making them a wonderful treatment for coughs, colds and sore throats.  A steam inhalation is a lovely way to get your evergreen medicine.  Infusing the needles in oil or rubbing alcohol makes for soothing, external rubs and liniments for achy bones, sore muscles and arthritic joints.

This winter I made a salve with balsam fir, spruce needle, and spruce pitch infused oils.  I slather it over my wet skin, fresh out of the shower, and I feel like I'm wearing a forest; a silky, smooth forest.

Even walking among these trees on a warm summer's day can have beneficial health effects.  According to Diana Beresford-Kroeger, pines release aerosols into the air, that, when inhaled, have a mild narcotic and anesthetic effect on the body.  Cedars release fenchone and thujone which stimulate the cardio-vascular system, and camphor and camphene, which act as bronchodilators to improve breathing.

Internally, the harsh resins in the conifers can begin to irritate the kidneys, if taken in large amounts for prolonged periods and internal used should be avoided altogether during pregnancy.

Of course, so many of the evergreens are considered sacred by the aboriginal peoples of North America, and are used for ceremonial purposes and various rituals.  Burning fir wood was used to give protection and to help people overcome fear of thunder and lightening.  Spruce roots were used to make ceremonial headgear and masks.  White pine was used a ghost medicine by the Seneca people who would make an eye wash for someone who had seen a dead person.  

It's too bad there's no such thing as scratch 'n sniff screen technology, 'cause I'd love for you to be able to bury your nose in this pile of cedar branches and breath deep!  Instead I guess you'll just have to go out and find your closest cedar hedge and stick your head in it.  You might look a little weird, but trust me, it'll be worth it!