Leeky Chicken Legs cooked in Maple Sap

Everyone has had a day when you are just too tired to cook but you’ve already pulled the let’s-go-out-to-eat card one too many times that week.  So you take a deep breath, open the refrigerator door and stare blankly into the abyss, wondering what the heck you are going to make.  Tonight that was me.  I grabbed the first two things that I saw: chicken legs and a leek.  Put them together and you have “leeky chicken.”  Perfect.

I tossed two tablespoons of butter into the pan, seasoned my chicken with a liberal dose of salt and pepper, and browned them in the butter over medium heat, turning the legs every few minutes.  Once browned on all sides, I tossed in one whole sliced leek and covered the pan.  After a few minutes, I realized that the butter was going to burn if I kept going and that the chicken legs weren’t cooked through yet.

Another blank stare, this time at the stove.

39650985455_40581bdcac_oOn another burner, a pot of maple sap was boiling away as part of my yearly backyard sugaring project.  I looked at the pot for a few seconds and then looked back at the nearly burning pan of chicken and leeks.  Then back to the pot.  Without much thought, I grabbed a ladle and poured two ladle fulls of partially reduced maple sap into the sizzling pan of chicken, instantly deglazing the pan – releasing almost burnt, caramelly goodness into the liquid.  Throwing the lid back onto the pan, I allowed the legs to simmer away in the sap for another 15 minutes.

At this point, the legs were cooked completely through and had been infused with a tender earthy sweetness.  This is when my brain finally kicked back in.  After removing the legs from the pan, I added another splash of the sap and a thorough sprinkling of salt to balance out the sweetness.  Had I known that I would be turning this experiment into a blog post, I would have measured out the salt.  Things being as they are, I would guess that it was about another teaspoon of salt.  The fat that had rendered out of the chicken skins added a richness to the sweet and salty sauce while the leeks brought their onion pungency to the table.  A quick sauté of a bunch of asparagus and the meal was finished.   The chicken was a big hit with the Man Cub, who eats a ton during the day but can be a bit picky once dinner rolls along.

More details on sugaring to come.

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Spruce Needle Scones

This past Saturday I led a winter wild edibles workshop at the North Branch Nature Center.  We covered quite a few different recipes, which you will see here in the coming weeks, but there was one in particular that I had been meaning to try for awhile.  With a captive group of guinea pigs, it was time to test out my idea for spruce needle scones.

The idea first arose while reading Pascal Baudar’s tome of wild crafted gastronomy titled, “The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir”The New Wildcrafted Cuisine (a lengthy title but one that adequately grasps the magnitude of the work).  If you do not own this book, go by it now.  Seriously.  Now.  It is a life changing book for anyone who creates wild harvested meals and will widen the scope of flavors in your cooking arsenal.  There is one recipe for white fir sugar, where Pascal grinds the needles of a white fir tree along with sugar to create a completely new ingredient to bake with or add as a topping.  We don’t have white fir here in Vermont but as with many of the recipes in his book, this one is presented in a way that encourages experimentation and substitution of ingredients.  Red spruce seemed a likely candidate.

When harvesting a branch from any type of tree or bush, it is best to make a clean cut using either loppers or hand pruners.  This will avoid any unnecessary tearing of bark that would make it more difficult for the tree to heal over.  Once you’ve secured your spruce branches, to turn it into sugar you will need one part dehydrated needles to two parts cane Spruce Sugarsugar.  Dehydrating the needles is super easy.  All that you need to do is cut the needles from the branch, spread onto a cookie sheet, and set in a 175 degree oven for one hour.  Alternatively, if you have more time, you can place the harvested branch in a brown paper bag and leave for several weeks until the individual needles are easily snapped when bent between two fingers.  Pascal recommends grinding the needles and sugar in several steps, starting with roughly equal parts sugar and needles, then adding the rest of the sugar in subsequent grinds.  Rather than grinding the combination in a coffee grinder, I used a food processing attachment for my immersion blender.  This leaves little flecks of the needles that don’t get fully ground down, adding a nice visual to whatever you end up baking.

For my first experimentation with the sugar, I added it to a bannock bread recipe (traditional bannock bread does not have sugar) and cooked it on a piece of slate over a campfire.  The spruce flavor shown through in a big way and was thoroughly enjoyed by the group of 4th grade kids that I cooked it with.  That was a year ago and I had wanted to try it in other recipes but didn’t get around to it until this past weekend.

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Spruce Sugar Bannock Bread

You can experiment using this sugar in place of regular sugar in any baking recipe.  I chose my favorite scone recipe from America’s Test Kitchen.  The recipe is for blueberry scones (which produces the best wild blueberry scones that I have ever tasted) but skip over the blueberry parts and substitute in the spruce sugar.  I also omitted the lemon zest that they called for since the spruce adds enough citrus flavor as it is.  The first batch came out looking great.  I say “looking great” since they were devoured so fast during the workshop that I didn’t get to taste one for myself until I made a second batch at home the next day.  The tops, sprinkled with a pinch of the spruce sugar, were the perfect golden brown.  You could get a slight aroma from the spruce when you broke into them and they had just the right amount of crumble.  Other who tried it swore that there was some type of orange, lemon, or other type of citrus in it.  There wasn’t.

I think some spruce cupcakes or muffins might be in my future.red spruce

Wintergreen Jelly

Wintergreen LeavesWhat do you  do when you’ve run out of grape jelly but you still have to pack your son’s pb&j the next morning?  Take the wintergreen leaves that you had planned on making tea out of and turn it into jelly instead!  Wintergreen is a low lying, creeping perennial whose leaves stay green through the winter and may be harvested year round.  There are a few look-a-likes, such as partridge berry (Mitchella repens) or periwinkle (Vinca minor), but none of them have the distinctive wintergreen scent when you crush a leaf.

I say that the leaves of wintergreen may be harvested year round, but there may be some40228867052_2a1797c3af_o impediments during the winter months.  To collect enough leaves yesterday, I had to dig through almost two feet of snow, with two distinct layers of crusty ice.  Luckily I had the patch well scouted and it didn’t take more than a few minutes to discover exactly where the waxy green leaves were hiding.  It is a fairly large patch, so I was able to take about 50 leaves without any fear of over harvest.

To make a wintergreen tea, normally you would pack the leaves into a jar, cover with water, and allow it to sit in a warm place for 3 days so that it may begin to ferment.  This fermentation draws out a more potent wintergreen flavor, however, time was of the essence tonight.  I decided to speed things up a bit and possibly forgo maximum potency.  The leaves were dropped into 4 cups of water in a sauce pot, brought to a boil and then reduced to a slow simmer for 15 minutes while covered.  The kitchen, which had smelled strongly of pork fat (pork chops were on the menu for dinner), was filled with a cloud of minty wintergreen goodness.  I suspect that some of those essential oils were released and lost into the air during the simmering process.  After the 15 minutes of simmering, I removed the pot from the heat and allowed it to sit and steep for an additional 30 minutes before straining out the leaves.

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At this point, the tea had a very dark, reddish color and smelled strongly of wintergreen.  The flavor was not nearly as strong as the aroma but it had enough to leave the mouth 25403087277_48ff57c436_owith a nice clean feeling.  Good enough!  Time to turn the tea into jelly.  I added 2 cups of honey and 2 cups of turbinado sugar to the tea and dissolved over low heat.  When I added the pectin, something interesting happened to the color.  It changed from the darker rosé color to a golden honey yellow.  Once poured out into jars and allowed to set, the end product was quite a nice little jelly.  The honey provided a nice base layer for the mintyness of the wintergreen to rest on.  When I have a little more time to play with, i will have to try making a batch with the fermented tea.  It would also be fun to try out a batch of snow cream with some wintergreen syrup!

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Snow Cream: Highbush Cranberry w/Maple Syrup and Pine Needle w/Honey

The only thing better than waking up and discovering that school has been canceled is having school canceled preemptively the night before.  Part of the joy of a snow day is the unexpected freedom to do whatever you want, untethered by the constructs of school or work; but when you get a chance to plan the night before, a snow day can be truly epic.  For the Man Cub, yesterday was pretty epic.

After breakfast we took a family hike up to the forest at the end of our street.  The snow hadn’t started falling yet, but there was enough  residual powder from the day before to 40106602512_a9d2292107_omake the going difficult for 2 year old legs.  My hike up the hill quickly turned from a leisurely stroll into a workout upon gaining a 32 pound barnacle.  The barnacle detached once we reached the abandoned apple orchard at the top of the hill and began chasing after the dog.  I took the moment to trim a few branches off of a Scotch Pine for tea.  The adjacent property had once served as a 9 hole golf course, so Pinus sylvestris is prolific.  I had hoped to also harvest some spruce needles, but the Man Cub took a spill in the deeper snow and had reached his limit for this outing.  A quick hop in the sled and we were back home.

The snow started coming down by the bucketful by the time we stepped back inside.  As soon as I closed the door, the Man Cub shouted, “Time to make the snow cream!”  I had made the promise the night before and he was not about to let me ruin his snow day by forgetting.  So off to the kitchen we went.  I had never heard of snow cream until this winter when I stumbled across a recipe while researching homemade ice cream.  It basically is exactly what it sounds like: snow mixed with some sort of milk or cream to create an ice cream like substance.

Most recipes that I’ve seen call for vanilla but we weren’t in a vanilla kind of mood.  Two flavors were on the menu on this  snow day.  The first was highbush cranberry sweetened with maple syrup.  The second flavor was pine needle sweetened with honey.  Each flavor came in the form of a simple syrup, which was then mixed with the snow and milk.  Half a cup of highbush cranberries were simmered in just enough water to cover until they burst and released their juices.  Seeds and skins were strained out and a half cup of maple syrup was dissolved into the juice then left to cool.  I made a cup of pine needle tea by simmering one cup of needles in a cup of water for 10 minutes and then steeping covered in pot for another 10 minutes.  After straining the needles out, a half cup of honey stirred in to make a light syrup.  Like the highbush cranberry syrup, this was left to cool.

39441193594_66c3248d2d_oWhile we were making our syrups, the snow was busy accumulating more than an inch per hour.  By the time our syrups were cooled down to room temperature, there was about eight inches of snow on the porch.  Using the largest wooded bowl we own, pushed open the front door and scooped up 8 cups of snow.  To the snow we added our highbush cranberry syrup and two cups of whole milk.  We stirred with a wooden spoon until the snow had all been incorporated into the liquid ingredients.  Surprisingly, the milk and syrup did not melt the snow.  Instead, the snow seemed to absorb the extra moisture and took on a somewhat creamy consistency.  When trying this at home, you may need to play around with the amount of milk and or syrup you add depending on the makeup of your snow.  I would imagine that wetter snows (good snowman snow) would require much less milk than a drier powdery snow, which is what we had.  We wasted no time in eating this batch of snow cream.  The milk gave it a very nice texture, similar to a sorbet.  The musky tartness of the highbush cranberry came through but was slightly overshadowed by the maple syrup.  If I do this flavor again, I would try doubling the amount of berries used in making the syrup to try to draw out more of the tartness.  Still, it was a very satisfying batch of snow cream.  There were certainly no complaints from the Man Cub until we had run out.

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The second batch had to wait until after dinner.  Again, we started with 8 cups of powdery snow and then stirred in a cup of the pine needle tea and honey syrup.  Instead of whole milk, this time we used two cups of homemade sweetened condensed milk.  For some reason, the condensed milk was not absorbed quite as well by the snow, so we added an additional two cups of snow to achieve the desired texture.  The result was something much closer to actual ice cream than our first batch.  The condensed milk gave it an incredible richness which was balanced out by the light flavors of the pine needle tea.  I asked the Man Cub what it tasted like and he said, “It taste like, um… SNOW CREAM!”  As good as this second batch was, I paid for it the rest of the night chasing after a hyperactive two year old who ended up staying up two and a half hours past his bedtime.  Next time I might skip the additional sugar of the condensed milk if we are eating our snow cream before bedtime.

Heartbeat of the Woods: Grouse w/Drunken Highbush Cranberry Sauce

Last week I wrote about the deep silence of a forest in winter.  How sometimes, if you are careful, you can slip into that silence.  Every now and then though, you get a little too close and something erupts from the forest floor with an explosion of sound.  The sound strikes right at your heart, letting you know that you don’t really belong there.  That something is a ruffed grouse.

It  is no longer grouse season here in Vermont.  Even if it were, my  grouse hunting skills  are non existent.  I’ve gone after grouse a few times but all that I’ve been able to hit in those outings are a few poor little beech saplings.  An old grouse hunter told me once about the rule of three.  For every three grouse that you flush, you will see one.   For every three grouse that you see, you will get a shot off at one.  For every three that you shoot at, you will hit one and that is only if you are well practiced.  However, every now and then food delivers itself.  A coworker gifted me with a grouse that his family found lying dead near one of the windows of their home.  Apparently it had flushed from the nearby bushes and took a wrong turn into the window.  Not wanting it to go to waste, he brought it to me.  I am so grateful that he did.

Having never eaten grouse before, I decided to keep things fairly simple.  A simple roast with a  highbush cranberry sauce that I tried for the first time last Thanksgiving would suffice.  Upon plucking and dressing the bird, I discovered that its crop was completely engorged with slightly fermented crab apples.  High on a shelf in my kitchen sat an unopened jug of homemade hard cider.  This would have to find its way into the sauce.

To roast the grouse, I followed instructions from wild food guru Hank Shaw.  He suggests roasting at 450 for 15 minutes and then dropping the temperature to 350 for the last 20 minutes, basting with melted butter throughout the process.  The only thing I changed was that I added a healthy dose of pepper in the buttering process.  The result was a perfectly cooked bird.  Thank you Mr. Shaw!

While the bird was in the oven, I worked on the sauce.  I sliced up a Braeburn apple, tossed it in a pan with a little butter and sauteed until the slices started to soften a touch.  Then I deglazed the pan with 1 cup of my homemade hard cider and tossed in 1 cup of 39312852964_31fb0c5c4d_ofrozen highbush cranberries that I harvested back in the fall.  Out of curiosity, I visited the bush that I harvested them from yesterday and to my surprise, there were still a few that looked like they were in good shape.  I am sure they are slightly fermented at this point, but we had an incredibly cold December, perhaps they froze quickly enough  to preserve some of their culinary  integrity.  Further experimentation will be necessary but  for now I will use up the berries in my freezer.

I let the cranberries cook down until they had burst, releasing their juices into the cider.  This mixture was then run through a sieve to remove the skins, large flat seeds of the berries, and apple chunks.  Returning it to the sauce pot, I stirred the liquid slowly over low heat as I poured in 3 tablespoons of maple syrup to balance out the musky tartness of the berries.  The end result was a slightly runny sauce with a big hit of pungent  sweet flavor.

After allowing the grouse to rest for ten minutes, I sliced the breast meat at an angle and plated it atop a bed of brown rice and shitake  mushrooms.  Legs and thighs are too small to make sense carving, so they were served bone-in.  Cranberry sauce was spooned over top of the breast.  The sauce could have had a touch more body, although its thinness allowed it to be easily absorbed into the breast meat.

This was by  far and away the best bird that has ever entered my mouth.  Like the highbush cranberries, the meat of the bird was slightly musky and had a gaminess about it.  Upon describing it as gamey to my wife, she immediately recoiled at the description, stating that gamey insinuates poor flavor.  I rebutted that most of the meat that the general society is accustomed to tasting actually has little to no flavor and that gamey has come to be used in reference to any meat that has an abundance of flavor.  Our palates are in need of a tune up after decades of eating bland meats.  I propose that everyone eats a plate of grouse at least twice a year to remind our taste buds of what food is supposed to taste like.  There is a refreshing unharnessed wildness in the flavor that startles the nerve endings on my tongue, similar to how the cacophonous eruption of a flushing grouse jolts my body to attention.  To taste a grouse is to taste the wild.  Go befriend a hunter, take up the sport yourself, or make use of wayward window strikes.  You will be glad you did.

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Chaga Chai

Walk into the snowy woods of Vermont in January and you’ll hear any number of things: 38430445844_e2b80454b4_othe crunch of the crusty snow beneath your feet, a branch scraping against your jacket, chickadees calling to each other as they dangle from the birch catkins, perhaps an unhappy squirrel alerting all other residents of your presence.   However, if you find a nice tree to sit against and just stay still for awhile, eventually the squirrel will stop chattering and everything will go silent.  No birds.  No wind.  No sound.  Quiet.  Snowflakes drift through the air, floating down to the ground and land without the faintest hint of a sound.  It is in this silence of the deep woods that the chaga mushroom grows.

To the untrained eye, it appears to be a crusty chunk of burnt wood protruding from the trunk of the tree.  That black  lump is actually one of the most powerful and sought after medicinal mushrooms in all the world.  Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is often reported to have some of the highest levels of food based antioxidants found in the natural world.  It is currently being studied for its potential anti-cancer and immunostimulant properties.  I could go on but there are too many other sites out there espousing the medicinal benefits of this fungus.

Since chaga has become all the rage in the holistic and natural medicine scene, demand for it has gone through the roof.  There are many folks out there trying to make a buck by harvesting and selling chaga, and I can’t really say that I blame them.  However, there is one thing that you should know about chaga before you buy from a dealer or harvest your own: it takes a long time for chaga to mature.  Five years ago I removed a tennis ball sized piece of chaga from a yellow birch tree.  I was careful not to cut into the tree itself and left a good chunk of the fungus behind.  I’ve revisited this tree every year since to check its progress and though it has healed over, it still has not completely regained its mass.

The portion of the fungus that we see is not a fruiting body, it is a sclerotium, which is a hardened mass of hyphae (the mushroom version of roots) that have formed a protective crust.  If an entire sclerotium is removed from a tree, you may risk damaging the fungus permanently or harming the tree itself.  I recommend cutting only a portion of the growth, leaving some behind to grow back and being careful to not dig into the tree.  You don’t need much to work with.  A one inch cube is enough to  make over a gallon of chaga tea and can be reused several times.

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Yellow Birch

To find chaga, you will need to first find the birch trees.  I have found it on yellow, paper, and black birches.  There are some claims that it may grow on non-birch species, though these claims have often been  disputed.  Fungi magazine has a very detailed article on some of the chaga “look-alikes” that may  grow on other trees: No, that’s Not Chaga.   When scanning a stand of white birch trees, the black schlerotia stands out.  If you are uncertain what you’ve found is chaga, break off a very small piece and look at the interior.  The hyphae should be a shade of orange with a network of yellow lines running throughout.

This interior part of the chaga is the part that you actually want for making tea.  The crusty, black outer layer holds many medicinal properties but it is also unpalatably bitter.  If you are making a decoction or tincture, this may  not matter so much since the primary usage is medicine meant to be taken in smaller doses.  When using chaga as a beverage, be sure to scrape off the black part.  I tried it once without taking the outer layer off.  Think of the most bitter burnt coffee flavor imaginable and then multiply it by 10.  I recommend removing this layer and cutting the rest of it up before it chaga pieceshas a chance to dry out as it will likely require the use of power tools if you don’t.  I usually process it the day of harvest with the use of a heavy duty kitchen knife and a sturdy cutting board.  Pieces about one cubic inch are the perfect size for me since I tend to make large batches of tea and store it in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.

For the simplest form of chaga tea, I simmer one cube in a gallon of water for at least an hour.  The color should be a deep caramel color.  It will give off this color within the first half hour but to extract maximum medicinal properties, longer exposure to heat is needed.  The flavor is reminiscent of the woods from which it came, earthy with the faintest whisper of vanilla. Lately I have tweaking this basic recipe, adding a stick of cinnamon during the simmer.

28068238279_8ee646c582_oThis past week, the Man Cub and I took it up even another notch and attempted a few batches of chaga chai.  For this, we took 2 cups of the cinnamon chaga tea and added 2 cups of whole milk from Sweet Rowen Farmstead.  The Cub got to add the spice: 1 crushed cinnamon stick, 1 star anise, 3/4 of one freshly  grated nutmeg, 3 crushed cardamom pods, 4 whole cloves and 1/2 teaspoon  of powdered ginger.  We allowed this to steep on low heat for 15 to 20 minutes.  This was poured through a fine meshed strainer and then into individual mugs.  We don’t have a steaming device but I still

Frothing the Milk
Frothing the Milk

wanted to have some froth for the top.  So, I heated up another cup of whole milk and turned off the heat right as it was starting to give off steam.  Tilting the sauce pan slightly, I stuck in the immersion blender and commenced to blend the heck out of the milk until it gained a thick froth.  This was carefully poured over our mugs to top off our drinks.  A sprinkling of cinnamon and cocoa powder added a little flair and a pleasant scent to greet our noses as we took the first few sips.  For an extra decadent version, you could do a chocolate chaga chai by adding a couple tablespoons of cocoa powder and a drizzle of maple syrup to the mix.

Chaga Chai