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Living Off the Land

Photo by Getty Images/Madeleine_Steinbach

This reflection comes from the introduction to the new book by Sarah Owens – Heirloom: Time-Honored Techniques, Nourishing Traditions, and Modern Recipes.

I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, barefoot and running free through valleys and hollers for most of my childhood. The rural customs of canning and preserving were a part of my daily existence, and the annual planting of and tending to a large garden ensured we had the most delicious, nutritious, and economically prudent diet. It was commonplace to find wild foods, in particular game meats and seasonal greens, at the table. I’d often see one of my uncles drag home a curious carcass of some sort, and my grandmother sighing in anticipation of the work ahead. Wild mushrooms regularly found their way into Thanksgiving dressings, mud turtle soup or barbequed squirrel occasionally made an exotic appearance at dinner, and to this day, poke salad and eggs are my favorite way to enjoy the persistent common pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). I now realize how lucky I was to grow up with experiences that connected me to the natural world. They shaped my priorities as an adult and encouraged my return to some of those practices while living in an urban location.

Foraging, preservation, and fermentation remain threaded through my culinary curiosity while traveling in search of knowledge that mirrors my Appalachian upbringing. No matter the location, most rural communities share similar themes of self-sufficiency based on climate and availability of ingredients. No-waste practices and scrupulous usage of each plant and animal have long been preserved by my family and in many places I’ve visited, knitting together communities and validating histories through food.

Sweet Meadow Vermouth

This recipe is an attempt to honor fall with a reflection of its most fleeting botanical highlights. You can adjust the recipe to include ingredients of other seasons as well, harnessing the distinct influence of lilac blossoms or honeysuckle, wild carrot or burdock root. The result is a beverage or mixer as joyous to imbibe as it is to make. The trick is to identify what each ingredient lends to the recipe, balancing bitter medicinal benefits with sharp citrus and lighter, more pleasing floral notes. No matter the combination, I always add a small stick of cinnamon and some kind of peppercorn to ground the mixture and give it a woody, earthy personality that plays well with most other ingredients.

Photo by Getty Images/Ales_Utovko

In its basic form, vermouth is a fortified wine (usually white but sometimes rosé) infused with bitter and aromatic botanical ingredients. You can use vodka to make initial herbal extractions that you then blend with a wine that’s been steeped with additional ingredients. Alternatively, you may simply infuse all of the herbals in wine, or even boil them down before fortifying with a liquor, such as brandy, and adding sweetness from caramelized sugar. Leaning on a few spring flowers helps lift and brighten the mix, but you can substitute honeysuckle, jasmine, fragrant rose petals, or small amounts of lavender. A crisp, unoaked white wine, such as a trebbiano, chenin blanc, or pinot grigio, is best here, as you want a clean and unfussy backdrop to the flavors of the season. Yield: about 3 cups.

Ingredients

  • 3 small feijoa or 1 small pear (about 2-1⁄2 ounces), halved
  • 1⁄8 cup dried or 1⁄6 cup fresh rose hips
  • 5 small bayberry leaves or bay leaves
  • 6-inch sprig fresh or dried mugwort
  • 4-inch sprig lemon verbena
  • 1⁄4 cup dried or 1⁄3 cup fresh chamomile flowers
  • 6-inch strip orange zest
  • 3-inch strip lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds or 1 large head green coriander
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon pink peppercorns
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 2 or 3 dried hops flowers or 1 fresh dandelion root
  • 750 milliliter bottle dry, unoaked white wine, divided
  • 1⁄4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon honey, optional
  • 1 cup smooth brandy

Directions 

  1. In a medium saucepan, combine the fruits, botanicals, and spices. Pour 2 cups wine over the mixture.
  2. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Once boiling, reduce the heat and simmer until the fruit and rose hips are tender, about 8 to 10 minutes.
  3. Remove from heat and let steep for at least another 10 minutes or up to 3 hours, occasionally checking for bitterness. Once the desired flavor has been reached, strain into a bowl. Discard strained fruits, botanicals, and spices.
  4. In a separate saucepan, heat sugar over medium heat until it caramelizes, being careful not to burn it.
  5. Reheat the botanical concentrate until it’s barely simmering.
  6. Slowly pour the hot concentrate into the caramelized sugar; the sugar will bubble, and can easily lash out and burn you if you pour too quickly. Vigorously whisk the mixture over medium-low heat until the sugar completely dissolves.
  7. Taste the concentrate — it should be somewhat bitter. If it’s too bitter, mix in the honey.
  8. Remove from heat, and stir in remaining wine and the brandy. Allow mixture to cool at room temperature.
  9. Transfer to a jar and cover. The vermouth will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
  10. Serve chilled over ice, neat, or in A Stranger’s Door Cocktail.

Wild Carrot Syrup

Wild carrot (Daucus carota) is an introduced, edible pasture weed, and the ancestor of domesticated carrots. All parts of the plant are edible if harvested at the appropriate time, but I prefer the prolific blooms in high summer, when they blanket rural hillsides and disguise abandoned urban landscapes with whispers of charming lacey flowers. The umbelliferous heads with tiny, central red dots attract a wide diversity of insect activity with fragrant nectar, signaling their potential for culinary flavor. Harvest the blooms in stages — ranging from freshly flowered to those that are beginning to set seed and curl — for a wide variety of flavors. Be sure to properly identify the plant by its hairy stems and stalk, as well as its carrot- or parsnip-like root, as there are a few highly poisonous impostors, such as hemlock (Conium maculatum).

Photo by Ngoc Minh Ngo

This syrup tastes mildly of carrot, with a sweeter, more perfumed hint of nutty caraway. It’s delightful served with a sparkling beverage, such as seltzer, or a dry carbonated white wine or prosecco and a squeeze of lemon. It’s an essential ingredient for A Stranger’s Door Cocktail. You can also combine it with pectin following the manufacturer’s directions if you’d like to make a jelly. Yield: about 2 pints.

Ingredients 

  • 2 packed cups Queen Anne’s lace blossoms, stems removed (2 ounces)
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2⁄3 cup mild honey
  • 5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Directions 

  1. Place the blossoms in a large, nonreactive bowl.
  2. In a medium saucepan, heat the water and sugar over medium heat, stirring until dissolved.
  3. Turn off the heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes, then stir in the honey.
  4. Pour the water mixture over the blossoms, and then stir in the lemon juice.
  5. Cover and steep for 1 to 2 hours, checking periodically for flavor.
  6. Once ready, strain into a sterilized jar and cover. The syrup will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

A Stranger’s Door Cocktail

When you come from a place of ample wild space with a plentitude of edible rewards, it’s difficult to feel comfortable foraging in an urban setting. When I first moved to New York City, this meant tiptoeing around city parks and nervously combing roadsides in fear of being caught plucking a berry or mushroom. Eventually, I owned up to the responsibility of harvesting wild edibles and began knocking on doors. The rewards often went beyond acquiring the item of desire — this foraging included the benefit of a story or recipe the stranger was happy to share. If I forage somewhere I know I’ll want to visit again, returning with a delicious treat made with their donated ingredient usually seals permission for future forays. An added benefit of knocking with politeness and respect is reinforcing a sense of trust in humankind, one that’s alarmingly eroded in our current climate of political polarization and social extremism.

Photo by Ngoc Minh Ngo

The initial reactions from most people answering unsolicited knocks are, not surprisingly, those of confusion. When I explain I just want to make use of their glut of fallen apples or quince, more often than not, the reaction is one of relief. “Oh, please do!” they usually exclaim, knowing their conscience has been eased of the tragedy of waste or the avoidance of messy rot in their own front yard. In one case, it meant packing an additional suitcase of feijoas offered from the front yard of an Oakland, California, home. A prized score not seen in seasonal climates with harsh winters, these delectable fruits stored for weeks in my refrigerator at home, leading to many delicious experiments, including this frothy, lightly sweet cocktail. If you don’t have feijoas, a juicy ripe pear makes a fine substitute.

This recipe uses ingredients found growing wild in fields, forests, and front and backyards alike. Be bold and take a chance asking permission — you never know what neighborly camaraderie you’ll cultivate in exchange. Yield: 1 drink.

Ingredients 

  • 2 ounces smooth brandy
  • 1-1⁄2 ounces Wild Carrot Syrup 
  • 1 large egg white
  • 1⁄2 ounce Sweet Meadow Vermouth 
  • 11⁄2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • Dash of grapefruit bitters
  • Ice cubes
  • Slice of feijoa or pear, optional

Directions 

  1. Add the brandy, carrot syrup, egg white, vermouth, lemon juice, and grapefruit bitters to a cocktail shaker (or a large Mason jar with a lid) and fill halfway with ice.
  2. Shake vigorously until the ingredients are incorporated and the egg white is frothy, about 30 to 45 seconds.
  3. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish with a slice of feijoa or pear, if desired.
  4. Serve immediately.

Sarah Owens is a self-taught baker and gardener. This is excerpted from her book Heirloom © 2019 Sarah Owens. Photographs © 2019 by Ngoc Minh Ngo. Reprinted in arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, Colorado. 

Published on Feb 10, 2020
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