Making Do in Appalachia: Roll your own Grape Leaves

Grape Leaves

Roll your Own Grape Leaves

Did you know you can make dolmas (stuffed grape leaves)  at home?

Stuffed Grape Leaves

Did you know where one can procure grape leaves for the dolmas?

From the grocery store-in expensive little jars.

Commercial Grape Leaves

OR

You can just forage your own. These grape leaves are the same ones that you can buy in the stores.

grape leaves

How to Harvest Grape Leaves

grape leaves

Late spring or early summer is the best time. You want the leaves harvested before they get tough or develop holes or funny little bumps. Bumps on Grape Leaves

 

Supplies needed: a pair of scissors and a storage container-aka a plastic bag. You want to cut the leaf carefully, to get all of the stem off, 

Wrong way to cut grape leaf
Don’t leave the stem on the grape leaf

so you don’t have to do any trimming in the preservation stop. You want to be very picky while picking! Choose the largest, non-holey, no bug grape leaves out there.

Cut cleanly at the picking stage
Cut cleanly at the picking stage

 

Cleaning

Cleaning Grape Leaves

We do a two step rinse of the grape leaves. These containers are food grade containers. You can purchase these at a restaurant supply store. We actually have one of these!-about 35 miles away.

Rolling

Start of Grape Leaf Rollup

After the rinse, place the leaf down on your surface. Continue to line the leaves up.

Start of Grape Leaf Rollup

Then roll up the leaves!

Roll up the Grape Leaf

Place your rolls vertically in your mason jar.

Grape Leaves in Jar

 

Brine

Jar of Grape Leaves

We are not very scientific about our brine. In fact, no science is involved. In the past, Dennis has just dropped salt into the jar and filled it up with water. This year, he did make brine.

What is Brine?

Brine is water saturated or strongly impregnated with salt. In other words, “salt water”.  There are actual recipes for brine if you care to search. Dennis added hot water to a 2 quart container, then added salt until it looked “briny”.

Salt

Don’t use fancy salt. Use the cheap iodized salt in the round box.

Finished Product

Dennis stirred the brine well, and then added the brine to the grape leaves and affixed the lids to the jars. Voila! No hot water bath, nothing. Put them on the shelf and make some great stuffed grape leaves from the convenience of your own home!

Do you have a special recipe for dolmas? We’ll discuss making stuffed grape leaves in our next post!

stuffed grape leaves

Tips for Success at the Cincinnati Wine Festival

Tips for Success Cinti Wine Festival

We love the Cincinnati Wine Festival. We ..think.. we’ve been going for the last sixteen years. Our Wine Spreadsheet doesn’t start until 2004, but we know we went before we started the spreadsheet. We know we didn’t start going until we moved here, in 2000.

We were going to the Cinti Wine Festival before they practically had a web site. They certainly didn’t have a program online. We thought we would share our thoughts for a successful wine tasting.

Tips for Success at the Cincinnati Wine Festival

Book a Room

You need to stay near by. Do not drive home. You will not want to. Book a nearby hotel where you can make with the merriment until closing time. (Then you can go somewhere else.) There are four or five hotels within stumbling distance from the Convention Center.

Go Eat Somewhere Early

Yes, eating at five o’clock is pretty outrageous for some folks. But we like to get a full stomach of food to soak up that wine. We eat out somewhere in downtown Cinti, so we can refresh quickly in the hotel room before heading across the street from the Convention Center.  You also want to go somewhere with quick service.  You’re not really there for the ambience and atmosphere-you need to eat. Oh, also, have some iced tea or soft drink with dinner, you’ll be getting to the wine soon enough!  Our favorites the last few years: Akash on East Sixth Street and Raya Lebanese Restaurant at 801 Elm Street.

Pour it Out

Wine tasting is just that. Swirl the wine around in your mouth, enjoy it, savor it, then spit it out.  But the spit buckets at the Cinti Wine Festival are too high to elegantly spit into.

The pourers at CWF pour generously. Pretty much too much wine. So sample your first sip (I’m swallowing) maybe the second sip–and pour the rest out. If you are a bit embarrassed to pour it out in front of the energetic pourer (who may be the wine maker) move on and pour it out at the next booth.

Enjoy yourselves

This is an excellent venue to try new things. My husband and I kind of hate Pinotage. Our favorite remark about it was “tastes like a urinal cake” (if we had ever sampled such a thing). One vendor got us to taste his booth’s Pinotage. Our reaction? It was excellent. (Seventy dollar bottle, it should be excellent!)

Do you only drink white? Try red. A dry red snob? Start your evening with whites before you hit the reds. What do you have to lose?

Walk up and try any varietal that you have never heard of before. This is how you learn! Never drank a wine from Portugal? Kentucky? Greece? France? This is the perfect place to try it out. What’s the worse thing you will do, pour it out?

A Few More Tips

If you can, don’t wear a coat/jacket, then you can avoid the coat check crush (if you remember you started out with a jacket.)

Avoid food and wine early at the CWF that will queer your palate. Try the chocolate wine, sugary ice wines at the end of your evening. Don’t sample the smoked fish early, you won’t be able to taste much after that. Don’t drink a big bold zinfandel for your first sample.  Look for a prosecco, a pinot gris or grigio to clean your palate a bit.

Don’t count on the food supplied at the Wine Festival to be your food for the evening. It could, I guess, but didn’t you go the CWF to sample wine not chow down on hors d’oeuvres.

Friday evening is generally less crowded than Saturday evening.

Above all, have fun, discover some new wine! Cheers!

Cincinnati Wine Festival

Time to Buy the Garden Seeds

Time to Buy the Garden Seeds!

It’s time to stop thinking about the spring garden and buy those seeds. They won’t plant themselves!  Here is our tentative plan for the 2018 growing season.

I will Care More About the Garden

I have more free time this year, and determined to have a great garden. Many times, life gets in the way and the garden starts to get neglected. In spite of this we usually have a good haul. But I am going to pay more attention, and be more organized this year. This is a garden for two people. It’s pretty small, but it’s just us!

Seeds to Start

Radishes

Zuchinni Squash

Yellow Squash

Butternut Squash

Delicata Squash

Big Mama Hybrid tomato

Biker Billy Jalapenos from seed

Tigger Asian Melon-I’ve grown melons successfully before, but this will be a new variety

Green Beans

Herbs

Basil

Cilantro

Marjoram

Note: We have rosemary, thyme, mint, oregano growing in pots year round

Plants to Buy Local

These plants are ones that  I only want one plant of. It does’t behoove yourself to buy a pack of seeds when you only want one plant. These plants are kind of generic, where it doesn’t matter what the variety is.

Beefsteak Tomato

Green/Red Pepper Plant

Grape or Cherry Tomato

Yellow or low acid tomato

New to Me

These will be new to me to grow:

Turnip Greens 

Futtsu Black Early Winter Squash

Tigger Asian Melon-this looked like a cool melon to grow

Sprouts-We are going to try three different types of sprouts. This was spurred by our local grocery stories (all 3 of them) no longer spouting the generic Asian “bean sprouts” can.  If you can’t beat ’em, grow ’em!

Try Try Again

These are plants that I have not had much success with growing. (See first point above, I will care more about the garden)

Brussel Sprouts

Loose Leaf Lettuce

Cilantro

 

Keeping Ramps Out of Season

Keeping Ramps out of Season

Keeping Ramps Out of Season

Ramps are extremely seasonal and highly perishable and the season is quite short (perhaps only 2 weeks in the Northern Appalachian regions of Southern Ohio).  Saving them for year round use presents a serious problem.  I’ve found 2 acceptable solutions but NOT as good as having fresh ramps. Here are our solutions to keep ramps out of season.

Freezing

Frozen Whole Ramps

Remove the roots, rinse and bundle your ramps in handfuls in ziploc bags in bunches about the same as scallions come in from the store.  Squeeze as much of the air out of the bags as possible before sealing but don’t squeeze so hard that the ramps are crushed.  Date the bags and toss them in the freezer.

These frozen bunches can be “shaved” or chopped as needed for cooking without any need to thaw them first.  (You’ll be needing a SHARP knife with a sturdy blade for cutting frozen ramps).  These work great in those scrambled egg dishes I referenced earlier.  They are not as great as fresh ramps but still darn good.  When placing your ramps in the bag to freeze them keep them all facing the same way, bulbs on one end and leaf tips on the other.  This way when you take out a bunch to shave off some for a recipe you may more easily choose between bulb or leaf bits as best fits the application at hand.

Frozen Ramp Bulbs

Kept solidly frozen your ramps should easily last until next spring when it’s time to go get more.  I’ve never had them last that long myself as they get used up very quickly.

Freeze Those Rubs

Prepared rubs are also are easily frozen in 1 quart ziploc bags.  A bit under 1/4 cup of rub in the bottom of the bag can be rolled out to something like a thin cigar along the bottom of the bag.  Then roll the bag up from the bottom to remove the air as much as possible and when rolled completely the top can be zipped.

Frozen Jerk Rub

Save the box your bags come in to store your rub “cigars” more efficiently in the freezer. (Or just use free Priority Mail containers from the post office-making do!) Frozen Rub Box Frozen Jerk Rub

They can be quickly thawed as needed then the meat to be rubbed can be tossed in the same bag, rubbed, then re-zipped and marinated for as long as desired.   A few minutes is usually enough to thaw the rub, especially if you crack the bag open and give it a little mushing up then a few hours of marinating your meat will work and overnight is even better.

Jerk Rub in Box

 

Keep the marinating meat back in the fridge during this time.  Kept solidly frozen I have kept rubs for several years  although they do lose some of their potency over time.

Pickling

The second method for saving ramps long term is PICKLING.  Pickled ramps are an Appalachian mainstay although many picklers only bother with the bulbs.   I first tried to pickle the entire ramp, less roots.  This did not work out as the vinegar could not penetrate the bulbs leading to losing the entire jar of ramps. I now pickle the bulbs, leaves, and stems all separately.  Pour a few tablespoons of salt on top of them, fill the jar with cheap white vinegar and screw down the cap.  It doesn’t hurt to give the jar a good shaking to dissolve the salt into the vinegar and get everything evenly distributed.

You may leave this in the fridge (I don’t bother refrigerating mine until after I open the jar and start using them) and draw off them as your culinary needs dictate.  The vinegar from these is also culinarily useful for deglazing pans or for adding to recipes requiring acidity.  The infused pickling vinegar carries the ramp flavor very well.

How long can you keep the pickled leaves and bulbs? Until they go bad, as in the lid of the mason jar puffs out.  We started drawing off of the whole ramps after about 4 months of sitting in the cellar without refrigeration then moved the rest of them to the fridge and are still using them. This jar of pickled leaves is two years old. Pickled Ramp Leaves The leaves are probably mushy, but still useful to add to a sauce or reduction.

If the straight vinegar method renders your ramps too sour for your taste,  replace 1/3 of the vinegar with water. I would not dilute it more than that unless they will be kept refrigerated.  Even in the fridge, the less vinegar you use, the shorter the shelf life of your preserved ramps.

Pickled ramps remain more pungent than frozen ramps but the pickling process does change the flavor as one would imagine.  You’ll still know it’s a ramp though.

 

Growing Your Own: Time to Plan!


 Growing Your Own Vegetables

Christmas is over, you know what that means. SEED CATALOGS ARRIVE! I actually got my first catalog December 23, which went immediately into the recycle bin.
Seed Catalogs

Growing your own is not “making do in Appalachia” it’s growing food that tastes good! There is no comparison to a garden grown tomato versus one bought in a store. I will put my tomatoes up against the best organic, free range, non-GMO Whole Foods tomato any day.

Time to Plan Your Garden!

Cost vs Time

What is your return on investment?  We don’t grow carrots or potatoes. They are cheap enough from the store. My mom grew sweet potatoes last summer. She didn’t notice any improvement over store bought sweet potatoes. She had no where to store them properly and they grew soft and moldy.

New easy vegetable I grew last year: Radishes. Ridiculously easy. Sowed the seeds in the bed, and voila, about two weeks later, radishes. Boom.

What do you like to eat?

Don’t grow something you don’t want to eat, no matter how easy they grow-unless you want to become very well liked in the neighborhood.

Butternut Squash Surplus

 Tomatoes, peppers, melons, lettuce, squash all taste better home grown.

Easy to Grow from seed

Some vegetables are hard to start from seed. I have found tomatoes, peppers, squash, swiss chard, beans very easy to start from seed. I never got my brussel sprouts to germinate last summer.  I’m rather hit or miss with cilantro and lettuce of all things. Here is a list of easy to grow from seed vegetables.

Consider buying plants

Some seed companies sell plants. We have a favorite habanero varietal, the Red Savina. It is hard to start from seed. I’ve done it, but it’s work. I now buy the plants from Chile Plant Nursery. It’s worth the money to me.

For popular varieties, visit your local greenhouse/home improvement store/big box store. Everybody is selling plants in early spring. The greenhouse will have a good selection, and the box/home improvement stores will just sell the popular variety.

Definitely grow herbs!

Rosemary

Fresh herbs can help many dishes. Mint in smoothies, basil in just about everything, cilantro in many dishes. We currently have rosemary, basil, two types of mint, oregano, and thyme growing. All of these except the basil (which will bolt) are year round plants. Clip some greenery and use.

January is the time to start thumbing through the seed catalog and circling stuff. Then figure out what you have room to plant. Then order those seeds, because it will be time to sow them before you know it!

 Next post will be what we are planning to plant for the 2018 garden season.

Ramps Our Favorite Spring Vegetable

Ramps Our Favorite Spring Vegetable

What is a Ramp?

 

rampsonbank

What exactly IS a “ramp”?  Put simply it’s a wild leek, allium tricoccum. Ramps are far smaller than the leeks we see in the store consisting of a bulb ranging from downright tiny to just short of the size of a marble, a stem section perhaps 2 inches long and 2 flat leaves 6 to 8 inches long on average and a bit under an inch wide.

These Are Not Ramps

This is garlic chives, not ramps

These are wild chives or garlic chives. Delicious in their own way, but definitely not ramps.

Location Location Location

Ramps are notoriously difficult to cultivate and thus far have eluded attempts to do so at a commercially viable level.  So where does one get them?  The time honored tradition of foraging.  They like wet sandy loam soil generally found along the banks of small streams and creeks in forested Appalachian valleys.

Woods in Spring

Ramps are EXTREMELY seasonal and very perishable.  The prime season is in the springtime before the canopy of the trees really leafs out starving them for light.  They do need it a bit shady so the naked trees before full blown summer provide just enough protection from direct sunlight.  Once the leaves on the trees bud out and spread the ramps will get yellowish and start dying back but continue to grow to maturity and seed out.  The seeds will replenish the ramp field as well as the bulbs regrowing and spreading.

Foraging

Locating a ramp field can be tricky and often requires blind dumb luck.  They do grow in small clumps and in onesies and twoisies  around the Appalachian forests for those with the time to hunt for them like mushrooms but the real objective is to locate large fields of them for efficient foraging.

Field of Ramps

Foragers tend to be secretive to protect their found ramp fields the same as foragers of mushrooms, especially morels.  Over-foraging can be a substantial problem for ramp foragers in many areas.  Any place they grow well that is easily accessible will tend to be over-foraged so foragers need to plan to get off the beaten path and do some hiking.  One must also be prepared to haul the “take” on one’s back from such remote areas if any quantity is desired.  This intensity of labor combined with the special knowledge (and luck) required to find them is a major reason ramps can be sold to urban chefs for prices exceeding $15 per pound.

Extraction

Once you’ve located ramps the next step is getting them out of the ground without damaging them.  We use a military entrenching tool (a folding shovel).  Lock it into the fully open position like a conventional shovel.  Place the tip of the blade a few inches from the individual ramp or preferably clump of ramps and push it straight down into the ground deep enough to extend below the depth of the bulbs and lever up the ramps to loosen them.  With the clump of soil loosened use your hands to wiggle the ramps free of the dirt.  If the soil is loose and sandy enough they may root as much as 8 inches deep and their roots will be tangled together so it will take a little effort to extricate them intact.

Just Foraged Ramps

Sustainability

Ramps have become so popular that they are in peril of being over harvested in many areas. In Quebec,  foraging for ramps for commercial purposes was banned way back in 1995. In 2004, parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee  banned the harvest of ramps after a study found the only way to prevent damage to the patch was to harvest less than 10 percent each year.

Where we harvest ramps, (a state secret) there are plenty of ramps to go around. There are acres of them. But we selectively pick and choose where we dig, never in the same area each year. We could dig for years and not make a dent in these ramp beds.  We also are growing ramps on our property and have just started the great Growing-Ramps-From-Seed Experiment.

Ramps on barrel

What to do with these lovely spring leeks? More posts to come, we’ve only just begun!