Forest Vinegar

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A late October scene in the Oak-Hickory Forest

Even for those of us who visit the woods nearly every day, there is something undeniably enchanting about a forest on a warm, clear day in autumn. I notice too, when I am in state and national parks that other people feel the same way. At no other time of the year are the woods so crowded. The aroma of the forest at this time of year is something truly special, the scent of fallen leaves and fungi, of pine needles and juniper branches filtering the autumn winds.

There are a number of excellent ways to capture this flavor, from pine family teas to juniper berry-laden pickles, bark and twig beers and wild sodas, and jams and sauces made from late-season fruit. The autumn is prime harvest time, with drying racks laid on every surface to preserve mushrooms and herbs, fruits and nuts. One of the best ways to incorporate this pantry of wild foods into everyday-use items is to make an infused vinegar. Single-ingredient vinegars are of course a perfectly fine way to experiment with flavors, but to me nothing beats an complex medley of seasonal flavors infused into a good cider, apple scrap or wine vinegar. At its’ best a forest vinegar is nuanced and sophisticated, and can lend a unique flavor and touch of personality to foods as diverse as your everyday salad, a jar of pickles, a marinade, or a finishing sauce.

I am going to present this recipe in two ways, first as an example of one of the forest vinegars I have made, second as a simple list of seasonal ingredients to experiment with, with a number of suggestions as to bases. You should feel free to experiment pretty widely with infused vinegars, just remember a few basic rules :

1. Sterilize your infusing vessel, and keep everything submerged while the flavors are infusing.

2. You may find a mother forming on the vinegar, like a kombucha SCOBY. This is natural and even desirable. You may also notice fermentation activity if you use ingredients that have wild yeast, such as juniper berries. This is fine, and generally dies off after a bit. I would suggest not overloading a vinegar with too many yeast-bearing ingredients to avoid an excess of activity.

3. Don’t overload the infusion with ingredients, allow for some space for the liquid to circulate and the flavors to mix thoroughly. I have tried using large quantities and shorter infusing times and the flavors come out strong but less-integrated. The longer these very disparate materials spend in each others company, the more they will rub off on each other and create a complex harmony of flavor.

4. Know when to strain. Strain when your tastebuds tell you to strain. Don’t hold out for the promise of more flavor, especially if you have a concentration of bitter ingredients. Bitterness develops over time–a good example would be the chinese bitter orange (Poincirus trifoliata), which makes an excellent vinegar but will turn quite bitter if the oranges are left in for more than a few days. If you find the infusion beginning to taste too bitter for you, strain it immediately. Better to have a weak forest vinegar than one that is unusable.

5. Know the flavors of what you are using – don’t just chuck something in because it is cool and you know it to be edible. This is especially true of ingredients with strong or bitter flavors–a heavy concentration of things like turkey tails or juniper berries may overpower a subtle blend of other less assertive flavors.

The following recipe makes a great batch of vinegar, and is a good starting point to experiment with. If you’re a total novice but can assemble the ingredients, it’s a safe and stable recipe to use as is. As you become more familiar with ingredients, and fine the ones that grow locally to you, it’s a good basis from which to add or remove ingredients as whim and season dictate. Because I am posting this in Winter, I’ve chosen a recipe which uses only ingredients which are still fairly available or were dried in late autumn (the mushrooms). The oyster mushrooms can be store-bought or you could even use conventional mushrooms, they are present mainly to round out the flavor of the stronger turkeys tail.

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Forest Vinegar #3

Combine in a large jar :

2 oz toasted hickory bark, broken into pieces

1 oz pine needles, cut into pieces

1 oz spicebush twig, broken into pieces

1 oz hemlock branches, cut into pieces

1/2 oz dried oyster mushrooms

1 oz dried turkey tail or dryads saddle mushrooms

1 1/2 oz rosehips from Rosa multiflora or cultivated rose

6 cups apple cider or apple scraps vinegar, homemade or good quality (look for brands with “the mother” like Bragg’s)

Cover and keep ingredients submerged, shake or stir regularly and allow to infuse until the flavor is to your liking. I usually allow at least three weeks to infuse this combination, you may also find that it infuses faster or slower depending on ambient temperature.

There is really no limit to what can be added to these vinegars, and below I’ve included two lists of seasonal ingredients that are often available in my location (Northeast US). Obviously some of these may not persist in winter in some locations, but in general even faded or dormant edible plants can provide useful flavors. A handful of worn and weathered mugwort flowerheads in December or some brick cap mushrooms past their prime can often bring a subtle flavor to infusions that might be overwhelming were the parts used when in the full bloom of their season. The key here is to work with small amounts of various ingredients to create subtle effects, never allowing one flavor to dominate the proceedings. Remember that strong-flavored ingredients create strong-flavored results. This list is by no means exhaustive, just a jumping-off point really.

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Another late-autumn Forest Vinegar, with bayberry leaf, juniper cone, sweet birch twig, sassafras root and birch polypore fungus with other aromatics.

Winter ingredients for Forest Vinegar

Roots (sassafras, wild carrot and parsnip, burdock, pushki, smilax)

Needles & Branches (pine, spruce, fir, hemlock, arbor vitae)

Twigs (sassafras, spicebush, sweet birch)

Fungi (turkey tail, birch polypore, oyster mushroom, wood ear, brick cap, velvet foot, chaga)

Fruits (LInden viburnum, blackhaws, juniper, crabapples, persimmons, cranberries, Highbush cranberries)

Leaves (wild chervil, garlic mustard, northern bayberry, deadnettle, ground ivy, bittercress, wintergreen)

Persistent dried tops of autumn-flowering aromatic plants (mugwort, wild carrot, goldenrod)

Autumn ingredients for Forest Vinegar

Including most of the above, plus :

Fallen Leaves (beech, maple, mulberry, oak, black walnut)

Fungi (too many and varied to list, but boletes, oysters, dryads saddle, and resinous polypore are all good for flavoring vinegars)

Fruits (apples, pears, silverberries, paw paw, persimmon, bitter orange, quince, spicebush)

Leaves (wild bergamot, northern bayberry, mugwort, wild carrot, pushki, dandelion, asiatic dayflower, quickweed)

Flowers (goldenrod, evening primrose, chicory, wild mustards, new england aster)

Seeds (pushki, wild carrot, nettle, evening primrose, wild mustards)

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Tuong ot toi (Vietnamese chile-garlic sauce)

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Combine in a food processor :

24 oz cherry bomb or fresno chile peppers, or other medium-hot to hot red chiles, destemmed but not deseeded and cut into quarters, halves or chunks as appropriate

1 head garlic, crushed and peeled

a pinch or two of salt

Pulse until chopped into smaller fragments, stopping to scrape and redistribute if necessary.

Add :

2, 4 or 6 tbs sugar (see note)

1/4 or 1/2 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar (see note)

Process until chile and garlic and finely enough diced. Place in medium to large saucepan over medium heat.

Bring to a simmer and cook at a low simmer until the liquid has mostly evaporated.

Allow to cool, then refrigerate and serve with EVERYTHING.

Note on proportions :

It’s best to play with the proportions of this recipe to suit you or your fellow diners taste. In particular sugar and vinegar should be tweaked : 6 tbs sugar makes something close to what is purchased in asian markets as shelf-stable tuong ot toi, 2 tbs is more like what would be served on the table at a restaurant. The larger amount of vinegar will make it take longer to cook and reduce but easier to process everything initially. And naturally it will make it more sour. I usually use 2 or 4 tbs of sugar and 1/2 cup of vinegar.

Ideally, you should play with all the other proportions as well, and even what kind and color of chiles to use, to suit yourself and your diners, and the dictates of the moment. I often replace 4 oz or so of the red chiles with green chiles, it ruins the impressive red majesty of the original, but it reminds me of when I used to buy it in the Asian market, where there is usually a bit of green since the peppers are pulled in big farms and often still have a hint of green. I used to think it was scallions 😐

This is undoubtedly the world’s finest table sauce. There is simply nothing finer in any cuisine that goes so well with so many cuisines and especially with so many simple foods. Raw and cooked vegetables, eggs, noodles, soups, sandwiches (unbelievable on banh mi), salads, tofu, pork, fish, and really pretty much anything is enlivened with a little dab of this. Butter, noodles and a spoonful of this with maybe a little cilantro would probably be my final meal if I had to have one. But I won’t! I will live forever, making millions and millions of batches of tuong ot toi! At least, that’s the plan.

Elderberry Syrup

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In a medium saucepan, combine :

1/2 lb. elderberries (washed, still attached to stalks)

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup water

Bring to a boil, crushing berries and sugar together. When the berries are smashed and the liquid begins to boil, cut heat, removing from burner if necessary.

Add :

2 1/2 cups sugar

4 cups water

Bring to a boil, then cut to a simmer.

Simmer for a half hour, then remove from heat, cover, and allow to sit for eight hours or overnight.

Crush again and strain all liquids through a cheesecloth into a syrup bottle.

Keep refrigerated.

Use as a base for sodas, dessert sauces, granitas, etc. Excellent combined in preparations with strong spices and herbs such as spicebush, black cardamom, ginger, wild ginger, shiso, monarda, cinnamon, star anise. Extremely refreshing on its own, with an almost perfect balance of sweet and tart.