Here’s the Shrub

The last couple of summers, I have been lucky enough to be invited out to Rose Ranch to pick wild blackberries. Last summer was no different. Well — it was different, in a big way, because Rose Ranch had just lost Don Rose. As I headed out toward the brambles, there was a muffled quiet like when you navigate a crowded space while wearing ear plugs. It was as though the ranch was observing silence at the loss of its caretaker. I pondered what Vicki might be going through and quietly, meditatively picked the berries from the thorny vines that snagged my shirt and jeans. I felt grateful for the opportunity to be in Don’s domain while mourning his absence. We miss you, Don.

I picked several pounds of blackberries. I ate more than my share of raw berries, froze some for a future crisp, and decided to experiment with blackberry-infused vinegar to make a drinking vinegar, known as a “shrub.” The color and flavor of the berries leached into the white vinegar as it sat in the cupboard for almost one month. To the strained vinegar, I added sugar and simmered it to make a syrup, which is used to flavor carbonated water. Refreshing! Bracing! Add some spirits, if you wish.

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Tucking In

It’s been about three months since I moved in with Brian. Our household boasts an impressive collection of cast iron skillets and mason jars waiting to be filled with homemade goodies like jam, pickled peppers, and barbecue sauce. Oh, and the assemblage of spices and dried herbs! One exciting weekend we spread them out on the kitchen table and thoughtfully culled the dated, mysterious, or simply redundant bottles and baggies. More recently I consolidated our seed collections while Brian baked a fish pie — perfect activities for a rainy Sunday in December. Seeds saved from our respective gardens were tucked into envelopes made from the colorful pages of last year’s seed catalogs. Then I trimmed and stamped old file folders to separate and alphabetize the packets. Brian’s mom, Linda, recently took us shoe shopping for Christmas and an empty Asics box became our seed storage bin. Simple and satisfying!

Intertwined

The first time I remember appreciating large-scale string art stands out because Brian and I were on our second date. (A proper introduction of Brian forthcoming!) We went to an adults-only event at Science Museum Oklahoma, where there was an impressive floor-to-ceiling string-art installation alongside a staircase. In the name of science, we played in the mirror maze, tossed a big frisbee, drank cocktails, dodged flying ping-pong balls, and ate liquid nitrogen cheese balls that gave us smoky breath. Or maybe we just smashed the frozen puffs with a hammer? That part is fuzzy. But the string art stuck with me as something I’d like to try.

I pondered the best location and color combinations. I browsed Pinterest. But what eventually propelled me was the appeal of a low-tech garden trellis made with wood scraps and readily available supplies. I especially liked the thought of bright, orderly strings among the green, beautiful mess that my garden becomes by late summer. And then I decided to place the temporary installation just where the morning glories have climbed for the last three summers. I enjoyed the bare strings for a while, but eventually the tendrils found them and the mass of vines has climbed higher than ever before.

Here’s the incomplete life cycle:

May 2
My first attempt at string art: a trellis for my morning glories!
June 21
#happyplaceimage
July 13
happy place (my porch)
August 20
late summer front gardenstring art
Sometime this winter I’ll disassemble the trellis. I am certain that removing the vines is going to reveal a tangled mess of string — a result of warped wood and tension that caused nails to pop out of the board. I’d like to create something semi-permanent in the yard and/or house, but with different, more resilient materials. Please share suggestions!

Beef Fat and Biscuits

Rendered fat has gone from a kitchen staple to something of a novelty (that might be experiencing a resurgence). As far as I’m concerned, Crisco is the freakish novelty — not fat from free-range animals.

Rendering
I spent the days leading up to 2013 rendering beef fat (tallow) that I got from Rose Ranch. It’s a time-consuming process perfect for wintertime, since it keeps the kitchen warm. This is only about half of the tallow I got from Don and Vicki, so I’m thinking I need to learn how to make candles or soap with the remainder of unrendered fat in the freezer.

I typically get these questions when people learn that I am enthusiastic about fat:

What is rendering?
Rendering is the process of melting fat so that the connective tissue and/or skin can be filtered out. It is homogenous, which makes it more suitable for using in recipes or scooping into a skillet.

Why go to the trouble of rendering animal fats?

There are a couple of reasons I embrace freshly rendered animal fats:
Most of the animal fats I’ve used were given to me. Free is a pretty powerful motivator. And as I’ve said before, my transition from vegetarian to omnivore included an increased appreciation for the whole animal. In addition, I find satisfaction in knowing where my food comes from and how stuff works. I’m not interested in using animal fats from factory farms.
Animal fats have a bad reputation, but I already embrace butter (in moderation) as a cooking fat. Tallow has less saturated fat than butter. I’m no expert, but compelling arguments exist for refocusing toward sugar the societal disdain currently aimed at fat.

What do I do with animal fats?
Lard and tallow are great for deep-fat frying, pastries, and biscuits, and can substitute shortening or butter in some recipes. Schmaltz, or chicken fat, is delicious in gravy, dumplings, and for pan frying. I don’t make these items very often, so luckily fat keeps for a year or so when stored in the freezer.

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Breakfast on New Year’s Eve: biscuits made with freshly rendered tallow; topped with wild blackberry jam.

Show and Tell

I’m repeating myself when I say foraging might be the perfect pastime, but that realization is one of those persistent happy thoughts. Wilderness, hiking, food — all things I love. Jackie Dill’s foraging walks have become an annual opportunity to meet interesting people and continue learning about Oklahoma’s wild edibles, as well as techniques for cooking and preserving them. And of course, there’s always delicious food at the post-walk potluck.
Here’s a show-and-tell from the June 2 outing that focused on medicinal uses of wild plants:

Jackie explaining uses for wild sage
Jackie shows the group prairie sage, which can be used to make smudge sticks, scent bath water, or to replace culinary sage. It’s a ubiquitous prairie plant that’s easy to identify, and it smells wonderful, as you might expect.
Jackie is a busy woman. I met her in 2008 when she hosted one foraging walk per year. This year there have been at least four at-capacity walks, and she is organizing next month’s wildcrafting festival.
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Beautiful Logan County
pleurisy root/butterfly bush
Pleurisy root/butterfly weed is the host plant for monarch larva and a nectar source for the butterfly. After the blossoms have wilted, you can pulverize the dry root, and use it as an expectorant tea.
buffalo gourd
Look closely: There’s a buffalo gourd in the center of the photo.
Vicki and Don foraging buffalo currant
Vicki and Don dug some buffalo currant to plant at Rose Ranch.
buffalo currant
Buffalo currants in June
Buffalo Currant
Buffalo currant blossoms in April
foraging caravan
The foraging caravan
Sarah picking sand plums
Sarah Warmker picks sand plums.
lead plant
Like a lot of things we identified on the foraging walk, lead plant can be used in tea form, but I don’t remember which part or for which ailment. Oh, well! I sure like the look of it.
bergamot/bee balm
Bee balm/wild bergamot. The dried petals and leaves are used as a tea, or blended with tea leaves. Jackie warned against using bergamot essential oil, or for that matter, any essential oils. I’m looking forward to learning more about this at the festival.

prickly lettuce
Young prickly lettuce leaves can be eaten in salads.

Foraging basics:
Before ingesting a positively identified plant, rub the plant on your cheek or inner forearm to check for sensitivity.
Leave no trace.
Leave enough for others and to ensure another growing season.

Blog entries from previous walks: 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Suspended and Satisfied

You know how it feels when discontent becomes normal? Maybe it’s lack of motivation or an unawareness of an alternative, but then things change and it’s bliss. I’m talking about really simple solutions, like the proper tool for a job (funnels, for instance), lubricating a door hinge that has squeaked for months, or figuring out how to program the damn thermostat. (Why can’t I think of examples unrelated to domesticity?) That’s how I felt last night when I installed hooks for my pots and skillets. Now I have more storage space, get to admire my cast iron skillets, and everything seems right with the world, or at least these 200 square feet. (Thanks for the inspiration, Nicole!)
kitchen
hanging pots

Sausage Fest

Jim making links
Could somebody dim the lights?
Who knew that making sausage could be so overtly sexual? Jim suggested we get some mood lighting as he twisted the long rope of meat into links.

A couple of weeks ago, I got together with a group of friends for a day of re-skilling, or learning skills that were ubiquitous a couple of generations ago. I cut down a tree! And then I got addicted to chopping firewood using a splitting wedge and sledgehammer. It felt so good to use all my might. And the cracking wood was deeply satisfying. Of course, as Doug reminded me, these activities are much more fun when they aren’t routine chores. Still, I haven’t had my fill.

After the tree-felling and firewood-gathering at Rose Ranch, we went to Hill Farm to make sausage from Doug’s 575-pound momma pig, Irma.

Doug picked up casings at Kamp’s meat market. They were silky with bits of grit that might have been salt. I triple-rinsed them and then Doug and Marcy loaded a piece on the sausage stuffer funnel.
sausage casings (pig intestines) Doug bought at Kamp's Meat Market
Marcy, Doug and Brody
Father and daughter Jim and Callie working together to get the seasoning just right
Jim and Callie seasoned the ground meat. We made bratwurst and Italian sausage.
It's all about the teamwork
I’m sure the novelty of making sausage eventually might fade, but by the end of that evening my cheeks ached from giggling at all the sexual innuendos.

More photos here.