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Recipes & Ruminations

Here we share stories and recipes from the Cordial test kitchen.

Recipe: Nettle Lemon Balm Cupcakes with Lemon Mascarpone Frosting

Jennifer Aikman

Anything spinach can do, nettles can do better! Truer words were never spake. However, keep in mind that while stinging nettle's stronger flavour profile matches spinach cup for cup in savoury dishes, it's a different story when it comes to confections. Trust me. After a batch of disturbingly toady looking, super vegetative tasting nettle cakes, I know whereof I speak. Mind you, they weren't disgusting, but definitely for the true nettle lovers out there. And yes, spinach is totally used in baking sweets. Just Google the gorgeous Ispanakli Kek and feast your eyes upon thousands of photos of this glorious green Turkish cake.

This recipe is also dead easy to make and the main ingredient is free if you harvest it yourself.  Nettles can be found growing in rich soil, disturbed habitats, moist woodlands, thickets, along rivers, and along partially shaded trails. They're plentiful in the spring, so find yourself a nice clean patch and pinch or snip off the top 4-6 leaves of the plant. Wear gloves if you're the type opposed to stings and rashes. Me? I actually don't mind the nettle bite and it's great for getting the blood flowing.

And although nettles are considered a noxious weed, they still deserve your respect. Be a considerate wild food harvester. Take what you need and leave enough for the next animal and to allow the plant to seed. My rule of thumb is to pluck from every third plant, unless it's a patch you're familiar with and you know it can withstand more enthusiastic foraging. Your urban wilds will thank you for it!

These cupcakes are perfect for a springtime potluck, hosting a springtime Urban Wild Foods Walk (as you do) and for taking to City Hall! Yup. We're bringing a hundred or so wee nettle cakes to Victoria City Hall's Town Hall meeting to sweeten up some city councillors into helping us promote food security through wild food education. If you're interested helping, please consider emailing  councillors@victoria.ca and asking them to add Gather's "Eating Wild: A Community Supported Foraging Initiative" to Section 8 of the draft Strategic Plan to “Enhance and Steward Public Spaces, Green Spaces and Food Systems”. 

Nettle Lemon Balm Cupcakes

(recipe adapted from MOM! What's for dinner)

Ingredients

  • 3 farm fresh eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 1/2 cups of raw sugar
  • 100 g raw young nettle leaves - It's best to weigh this amount. But basically you want a 1/2 cup of puree
  • handful of lemon balm
  • 3/4 cup of olive oil (light or extra light works best)
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • Zest of 1 lemon (1/2 for cake + 1/2 for frosting)
  • 2 cups flour
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350

Don your gloves and give your nettle leaves a quick wash in cold water and remove the stems. Do the same with your lemon balm, but you don't have to worry about stems.

Steam the nettles and lemon balm or boil in a wee bit of water for 5 minutes to remove the sting. Drain and puree. *I have skipped the steaming before to limit the amount of processing to the greens. And it tasted lovely—but definitely stronger. You have to add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to the leaves to get them to puree properly. However, if you prefer a slightly milder flavour and an easier go of it, give them a quick steam.

Beat eggs and sugar until light and creamy. Add vanilla, oil, lemon juice and nettle lemon balm puree. Mix until just combined.

In a separate bowl sift flour, baking powder and salt. Mix into the nettle lemon balm mixture—again just until combined and smooth. You don't want to overmix.

Fill cupcake liners 3/4 full and bake for 22-30 minutes—check with a toothpick for doneness. Makes 48 mini cupcakes.

Lemon Mascarpone Buttercream Frosting

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup Mascarpone cheese, room temperature
  • 2 cups confectioners sugar, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 lemon - finely zested

Beat butter and cheese until light and creamy.

Add sugar and continue beating. Add lemon juice & zest and continue beating until smooth.

This frosting is a good keeper, so you can make it in advance or keep leftovers in the fridge (tightly covered) for up to a week.

Now you can slather your not-too-sweet frosting onto your spring green cupcakes. I found it easiest to fill a pastry bag with the frosting and pipe it on to the cupcakes. But, really—that's between you and your deity.

Garnish with a bit of lemon zest or lemon balm leaf, if you're feeling fancy.

Plum Blossom Vinegar

Jennifer Aikman

It's spring in the Pacific Northwest and the ornamental plum blossoms are positively frilly with blossoms. And as we all know, they're here for a good time, not a long time. So, now is the time to capture their sweet scent in a bottle. For the last couple of weeks, I've been experimenting with different ways to preserve the plum blossom's swoony sweetness. I came up with a heady cordial and a concentrated syrup that I've been adding to sparkling water, tea and even as a flavouring for the prettiest meringues you'll ever lay eyes on. I'll post recipes soon. But for right now, I can tell the trees are preparing to let loose a blossom blizzard. Time is of the flower essence. Enter plum blossom vinegar.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups of washed, de-crittered ornamental plum blossoms, lightly packed 
  • 1 cup white wine or champagne vinegar (use whatever kind you like - I used white because I really wanted pink vinegar)

Directions:

Heat the vinegar in a small pot over low heat until it's warm. No need to boil here. Just imagine what boiling vinegar will do to those delicate little blossoms!

Sterilize a 500ml mason jar and ring. 

Put your blossoms in the jar and cover with warm vinegar.  

Let the vinegar cool and put a square of parchment or wax paper over the opening of the jar and screw on the ring. Vinegar and metal sometimes don't play nice together. 

Put your infusion in a dark cupboard and forget about it for two weeks minimum. Really, the longer you leave it the better. 

After your long patient wait, you pour the vinegar through a piece of muslin or a coffee filter to remove all the plant matter. 

Decant into a pretty bottle and pop a few fresh blossoms (if they're still around) into the bottle for the sake of prettiness. 

This vinegar smells like spring and has a fantastic tart, floral flavour. You will now make the best salad dressings of your life. Me? I love adding a teaspoon to sparkling water for a nice tart drink. And remember how I mentioned meringues earlier, a dash of this makes them more stable and imparts even more blossomy goodness. Furthermore, if you're the giving sort, this is a perfect gift for the people you really like. Mother's Day is coming up. It always is. 

 

On the Good Chip Urtica Dioica: A Nettle Chip Recipe

Jennifer Aikman

Yup, just like the title says. Stinging nettles Urtica dioica, the darling of wild spring greens, make really great, really healthy and really free (minus labour. yours, lots of it).

The nettles came early to Vancouver Island this year, and we've been enjoying the bounty and spring sting that comes with it. A stimulated circulation is a happy circulation, I always (actually, just this minute) say. We've been eating them in eggs, soup, tea, straight up and sauteed and even in cupcakes. After one particularly robust harvest & evening of pureeing, I found a bag of nettle leaves that somehow escaped the steamer. Now, I'd just washed said steamer and had no intention of dragging it and my ancient blender out again. However, I couldn't bear to sentence those pert and fresh leaves to languish and limpen (new word alert) in the fridge overnight. So, what do you do when life gives you nettles? You make nettle chips!

I'd been meaning to try out Mountain Rose Herb's recipe for ages, but for some reason I had it in my head that chips just weren't serious enough for such a powerhouse green. I was dumb. Nettles are totally fun and hip. Just look at them, with their tender top four leaves and edgy hypodermic hairs o' poison. Total crisp material.

Impress your friends. Confound your enemies. Make nettle chips. Now.

Recipe: Stinging Nettle Chips à la Mountain Rose Herbs
 

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil. I used a strong-tasting kalamata oil because I really like how it tastes. Any vegetable oil will do and word on the street is that coconut oil is quite nice.
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar ( I didn't have any, so I used white wine vinegar )
  • 1 tablespoon Braggs
  • 1 tablespoon flavoured balsalmic vinegar. I had just enough of gorgeous lavender vinegar kicking around.
  • 1 tablespoon of tamari sauce
  • 2 cloves of crushed cloves of garlic ( I like garlic. A lot. You do what's best for you.)
  • 2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast
  • black pepper to taste
  • Directions

    Harvest your nettles, give them a good rinse in cold water and dry them with a towel. Obviously you are wearing gloves right now. Next, separate the leaves, breaking the leaf stem from the stalk.

    Preheat oven to 200 degrees.

    Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

    Mix all the ingredients into a bowl. Add your nettles leaves and toss gently until they’re all completely covered. You want to go slow here because the leaves can tear from overenthusiastic tossing.

    You probably won’t need your gloves at this point, which is good because because things are about to get persnickety. Carefully unroll each delicate leaf and place them on the baking sheet. Don’t overlap leaves or they won’t crisp up.

    Put the pan in the oven and find something to do for 15 minutes. Once your timer goes off, rush to the oven and flip the leaves over and bake for another 10 minutes. If they’re still not totally crisp, leave them in longer, checking on them every few minutes. It would really, really suck to burn them. I know this because I’m still barely talking to myself after burning my first batch. I ate them anyway.

    Once they’re as crispy as you like them, let them cool. You can try to store them in an airtight container, but let’s get real. You will have in front of you crispy little flavour miracles. You will eat them. But if you’re in to self-control, you CAN store them in an airtight container for up to a week according to the good fine people over at Mountain Rose Herbs. This is still only a theory in my house.

    Happy hover-eating!

    Heart & Hearth Brandy Cordial

    Jennifer Aikman

    Hawthorns and brandy look rather nice together.

    Hawthorns and brandy look rather nice together.

    Christmas is coming and this goose is getting fat. No, really. I've been eating terribly lately. Stress and disorganization are my biggest downfalls/excuses. So, it's high time I did something that does a body good. Thankfully, it just so happens to be hawthorn berry season and...well, hawthorn berries are awesome. And I do mean that they really and truly inspire awe. Not only are they incredibly beautiful—lighting up autumnal trees with deep red berries—but they also open the heart in folklore and magic—as well as in medicine.

    Right now hawthorn berries are plentiful and easy to harvest without irritating wood nymphs and or damaging sacred trees—always a good thing. As far as I know (do your own research), all hawthorn trees—from leaf to blossom to berry—are safe to consume, provided you don't eat the seeds. Like apple seeds, they contain cyanide and should be avoided. To be honest, despite claims that the berries are tasty, I find them pretty flavourless.  However, they're wonderful in jellies, sauces and of course, brandy! And the only thing I can think of that's better than brandy is brandy that soothes a troubled heart. It's dead easy to make up a batch of hawthorn berry brandy and in few weeks you'll have a gorgeous festive liqueur for holiday entertaining or to give as heartfelt (ha!) Christmas gifts.

    Now some recipes recommend you cook up the berries, sugar and spices and then let it steep for several weeks.  But, I like the idea of starting with a tincture of just berries and brandy and then adding a spiced syrup to the cold infusion later on. This way the potency of the berries isn't compromised by heat. Alternatively, you can substitute the brandy for vodka, skip the cordial-inducing spiced syrup step and you've got Hawthorn schnappes. And so, since this is my first time making it and I couldn't find any recipes to suit me online, we're doing this together!

    Heart & Hearth Hawthorn Brandy Cordial

    You may recognize this photo from my chutney-making adventures... When processing haws, it's a good idea to do as much as you can in one day, lest you die of boredom.

    You may recognize this photo from my chutney-making adventures... When processing haws, it's a good idea to do as much as you can in one day, lest you die of boredom.

    Phase 1: Tincture or Schnappes

    Hawthorn berries, washed and stems removed
    Best brandy you can afford—the big bottle

    Basically you want to find a big jar and fill it with as many Hawthorn washed and de-stemmed berries you can manage and then fill the jar to cover the berries with brandy. I had some homeless rose hips kicking around, so I threw in a handful of those, as well.  Put the lid on and find a dark, cool-ish place to store it for a good 4-5 weeks. Really, you can get away with less, but the longer the berries remain in the brandy the more beautiful and healing your cordial will be. Shake the bottle daily. If you forget a day, admonish yourself and sheepishly shake it the moment you remember.

     

    Phase 2: Becoming Cordial or Making the Spiced Simple Syrup

    Raw sugar or honey

    Water

    1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice

    Zest of one orange

    Spices: cinnamon stick, grated nutmeg, 3 cloves, 2 cardamom pods, whatever else feels festive to you

    Five-ish weeks have flown by, Christmas commercials have started and you're now ready to strain your berry brandy tincture. Or, so I imagine. Remember we are doing this together in real time. Note the lack of photos of this stage. I will be sure to add some come December.

    Pour your tincture through a double cheesecloth-lined sieve and then do it again to filter out sediment.

    Measure how much brandy tincture you have. You'll be adding equal parts spiced syrup to make your liqueur. You'll probably want to play with this to find the flavour you like best.

    In a pot combine equal parts water and raw sugar (or honey). The water and sweetener should be equal plus one cup to the amount of brandy. For example, if you have 3 cups of brandy, you'll need 4 cups of water and 4 cups of sugar or honey to make your simple syrup.

    Add the lemon juice, orange zest and spices. Cover and slowly heat, stirring occasionally. Allow it to simmer for 20-30 minutes, without letting it come to a boil.

    Allow your spiced syrup to cool to room temperature and strain out spices. If it's not quite flavourful enough for you, you could add a few more spices and let it sit overnight.

    Now, the general rule of thumb is equal parts simple syrup to alcohol, but you can play with this a bit. Add syrup to taste, keeping in mind that liqueurs are generally pretty sweet and are meant to be imbibed in small amounts. Plus, it's Christmas! What's the point in getting chintzy with the sugar?

    Annnnd, hey! You just made liqueur! At this point, you probably should return your liqueur to a jar and store it for a few more days to allow it to settle. However, if you're feeling impatient you can decant your elixir into sterilized bottles for gift giving now. If it seems cloudy, you can strain it through cheesecloth once more. Berry liqueurs do better in dark bottles but if you plan to use it up quickly or you're giving away small amounts—a clear bottle is fine. Store your bottles in a dark place until you use them or give them away. Maybe let the lucky recipient know that their festive and heart healing liqueur will improve with age and to store it away from light.

    Now sit back, raise a snifter and congratulate yourself for making a tipsy, heart-healing concoction worthy of you and your loved ones. Go ahead and congratulate yourself again! Maybe even one more time...

    Here's hoping it all turns out according to plan! I'll be sure to update you in December...

     

    Hips n' Haws For Urban Explorers

    Jennifer Aikman

    I've been busy collecting rose hips, hawthorn berries and apples to make a zippy chutney for Gather's Wild Foods Walk this Sunday. The weather may be soggy and I'm thinking something a little spicy may be appreciated. This was actually pretty easy to make once you get past the painstaking process of picking, cleaning and processing of a gazillion beautiful hawthorn berries, it's pretty smooth sailing. It's recommended you wait to harvest the berries and hips after the first frost, but with the mild weather here in the Pacific Northwest, you're better off to keep an eye on things and collect them when they look ripe.

    For this batch, I added a wee bit of fresh hot pepper that was gifted to us by a hot pepper-loving family member and I'm excited to try it on Sunday. Really, a chutney should mellow out for at least a month before eating it, but what can you do? I've squirreled a jar aside for Christmas. We'll see how the taste compares.

    I don't really have an official recipe to share as I kind of winged and eyeballed it, but here's the basics.

    Recipe (of sorts)

    Ripe hawthorn berries collected from a clean source
    Ripe rose hips also collected from a clean source
    Apple cider vinegar - to taste
    Cooking or firm apples - 2 or 3 (to taste), peeled cored & chopped in cubes
    1 small onion, chopped fine
    1 shallot, chopped fine
    Hot pepper, chopped - a little goes a long, long way
    Dried Cranberries, 1/2 cup, chopped
    Brown sugar
    Fresh thyme, a few sprigs
    Cloves, allspice, black pepper, dried ginger, cardamom, nutmeg & salt

    Gather as many ripe hawthorn berries or "haws" as sanity will allow. Wash them, and remove the stems and pick out any dried out or rotten ones. This will take forever. Enlist friends and foes alike to help with this. I wound up with around 3 cups of berries. Put your haws in a pot with a equal parts water and apple cider vinegar—just enough water to cover the berries. Bring to a boil and simmer until the fruit softens.

    Tuck in, you're going to be here awhile... Pretty though, aren't they?

    Tuck in, you're going to be here awhile... Pretty though, aren't they?

    Same thing for the rose hips... I had about 2 cups of rose hips. Remove blossom remnants and stems from rose hips. Put them in a pot with just enough water (this time no vinegar) to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer until they're soft. Rose hips can take a while.

    While the fruit is taking it's sweet time softening up, heat the onion, apple and shallot in a large pot with a little oil. Just long enough to warm everything up a bit.

    When the hips and haws are soft push the fruit through a sieve and into the same pot as your onions & apples. If you're smart and lucky you'll own a food mill. If you're like me you'll find your finest, sturdiest metal sieve and get to work. Once you've sieved all that you can sieve, and all you're left with is seeds and skins, stir the fruit paste and onions and apples to combine. It should be starting to look like chutney now.

    A word about the apples. Since you're really adding them for texture and sweetness and not to achieve a set, you can add as little or as much as you like. That kind of applies to everything in this recipe. Go for the look and texture that appeals to you... I do apologize for the loosey-goosey business. These kind recipes tend to drive me nuts, but I promise you—it's very forgiving.

    Add 1/4 cup of apple cider. If you have a lot of paste, you'll want to add more.

    Add the cranberries to the pot along with the thyme, hot pepper, sugar and spices. Adjust your amounts by taste and based on the amount of berries and hips you collected. Add a little more apple cider vinegar now if you want it tarter. Cook for 10 minutes on medium heat until the sugar dissolves and it's heated through. Keep stirring because it would be really, really terrible if you burned your lovely wild chutney.

    Taste it once more. Add what you think is missing. If you've made enough to preserve, spoon the chutney into sterilized jars and process them in a hot water bath for 15 minutes. Let them sit for 24 hours and then place them some place dark and cool for a month before you crack them open. It's October, so if you make some now you're looking pretty good for holiday snacking and/or gift-giving. If you've only made a bit, you can store it in the fridge. With the vinegar and sugar, it should keep a good long while.