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)

Bayberry Salt

Flavored salts are an excellent way to make use of some of the wild spices that are available to intrepid gatherers. Various fruits, cones, nuts, mushrooms and leaves can be used, anything that can be dehydrated and combined with salt. This often helps preserve more unstable wild spices, and prolongs the life of their flavor beyond the season of their emergence. A good example of this would be hemlock salt, in which the green cones of Eastern Hemlock are combined with salt to preserve the unique, robust, citrus-y flavor they possess in their green state.

Bayberry leaves are available almost year-round, so preserving them isn’t at a premium. The leaves do tend to grow dark and unappealing in winter, although they may linger on late in warm winters or coastal locations (see photo below). The leaves of Myrica pensylvanica and other Myrica species are often mentioned in field guides and foraging books as a substitute for bay leaves (i.e. the Laurel Bay, Laurus nobilis). While this is certainly an option, I’m not a huge fan of “substitution” as a principle for utilizing wild food. I would prefer to exploit the flavors of the ingredient itself and craft recipes that reflect that flavor.

To my taste buds, Myrica leaves have a more complex and “bright” flavor than Laurel bay, with a less pronounced potency. In other words, if you’re substituting for Laurel leaf in a recipe, double up the amount of Myrica leaves used. If you are just enjoying them on their own merits, the following seasoning salt is a far more effective method. This is one of my go-to salts, perhaps the go-to salt, although juniper, black trumpet, roasted tomato and hemlock salts all get an enthusiastic nod for adding to dishes in lieu of ordinary sea or kosher salt. But bayberry leaf salt seems to be the crown prince of them all, serving as a final sprinkle to dishes instead of salt and pepper, but also being used in recipes themselves. In spring I roast whole chickens sprinkled with bayberry salt, after slipping pushki leaves under the skin. In the fall, grilled mushrooms and onions explode with flavor given a simple dusting of the stuff. You get the picture.

Grind together in a food processor :

6 cups bayberry leaves, dried

1 cup salt, preferably sea salt

Store in a well-sealed glass jar at room temperature. Lasts at least one year.

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Some Northern Bayberry still clinging on in a coastal location in January.

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.

Pickled Blueberries

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Fill a quart jar nearly to the top with freshly-picked, clean blueberries, wild or grown.

In a small saucepan, combine and heat until sugar and salt are dissolved :

1 cup seasoned rice vinegar

1 tbs. sugar or honey

1 tsp salt

Add one or more of the following :

1 sliced chile

Several crushed whole cloves of garlic or 2 tbs bulbils of field garlic

Lemon or orange peel or chunk of preserved lemon

1 tsp whole peppercorns, white or black or sichuan

1 small cinnamon stick or 1 tsp vietnamese cinnamon

several cloves or blades of mace

you get the idea.

Pour mixture over the blueberries, allow to cool, the refrigerate for 24 hours, open and serve either chilled or at room temperature. Great as a snack or garnish.

Garam Masala March 2015 : New Times Masala

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Place in a large, heavy skillet or cast-iron pan over medium-low heat :

1/2 cup coriander seeds (1.75 oz)

1/2 cup cumin seeds (3 oz)

seeds of 3 tbs green cardamom pods (.5 oz) (about 1 1/2 tbs seeds)

1 tbs vietnamese cinnamon (.25 oz)

1 tbs cloves (.25 oz)

4 tbs black peppercorns (1.75 oz)

Toast spices, tossing gently, until aromas have been released but before coriander and cumin seeds begin to darken. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.

Leave whole and store in glass to be ground fresh and used in recipes, or grind to a fine powder and store in glass jars or shakers. I usually like to leave about half as a solid spice mix and grind the other half. Remember when using the whole spice mix that it should be shaken before measuring, as it will likely settle and separate in the jar.

Ground masala will remain usable for at least a half of a year, the whole spice mix for a year. If spices are burned or darkened they will deteriorate more rapidly.

Masalas are inherently variable things, dependent on the mood of the cook and the spices available. I encourage you to come up with your own spice mixes, reflecting your own tastes and adding a touch of your own personality as a cook. This one is just a snapshot, a new masala for new times.

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Spiced Daikon Pickle

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Another year-round staple of my kitchen, this is pickled radish inspired by the Vietnamese do chua pickles, served with noodle dishes, salads and banh mi. I specifically made this to pair with my sweet-hot pickled carrots. I was introduced to the combination of pickled carrot and radish threads (sometimes with cucumbers added) in the Vietnamese restaurants and sandwich shops of Houston, and have made some variation on do chua ever since. My love of variety gave me the idea a few years ago to separate the pickles into two different treatments, adding chile and more sugar to the carrots and a mix of savory spices to the radish.

Place in a glass quart jar* :

2 star anise

2 tsp sichuan peppercorns, whole

2 tsp black peppercorns, whole

1 stick of cinnamon or a few pieces of cassia

*You may choose to place these spices in an infusion bag, so that the flavors get into the pickle without having whole spices scattered amongst the pickle. You may also simply leave them in, and enjoy the intense flavor of crunching into whole spices. I like both, and will vary according to my mood or what I plan to serve this with.

Slice into shreds / julienne with a mandoline or knife :

1 lb. daikon radish or other large asian radish

Heat in a small saucepan, stirring until the sugar and salt are dissolved :

2 cups white vinegar, brewing vinegar or other mild vinegar

3 slices of ginger, about 1-2″ inches long and wide

2 tbs sugar

1 tsp salt

Place the shredded radish into the quart jar with the spices, then pour in the seasoned vinegar while it is still hot.

Allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.

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This is another fairly straightforward quick pickle, once which will be ready to eat once it cools, slightly more flavorful after 24 hours, and which will develop in flavor over time and last at least a month or two.

It does, however, come with a warning. Pickled radish has a very strong odor. When I serve this pickle for a buffet of noodles or banh mi, or any other occasion, I always make sure to open the jar a couple of hours before the guests arrive. Another option is to place a serving of the pickle in a small bowl and return it to the fridge, uncovered, which will keep the pickle cool and let it air out. Once you make this pickle, you will quickly understand how important a step this can be. It doesn’t bother me much, but for some the smell will permeate the pickle board and inhibit their appetites. None of the odor really permeates the flavor of the dish, which is spicy and mildly sweet.

Excellent served with sandwiches, salads, noodle bowls and so on, either as a component of the dish or an optional garnish. Because of the complex, savory spices used this pickle doesn’t necessarily register as specifically “asian” in flavor and can be used to accompany a wide variety of dishes and cuisines. An especially enjoyable use of them that might not be readily obvious is to pair them with hard cheeses such as gruyere, cheddar or gouda. They also make an excellent foil for sweet or spicy cold meats and sausages.

Fermented Sriracha (Tuong Ot Sriracha)

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Making a homemade version of the popular sriracha hot sauce couldn’t be any easier : a simple fermented version can be made that is far more flavorful than any commercially available one. You could also make this sauce fresh, simply omitting the fermentation stage, but I think you will find that the extra time really adds a strong depth of flavor not present in the fresh version. For such a simple preparation, this sauce has a zesty, complex taste that far outstrips the somewhat one-note heat of Huy Fong and other store-bought brands.

I like to make two versions of this sauce : one red, one green. They have quite different characteristics from each other, the red one possessing a much deeper, more complex heat and the green one a sharp, fresh heat. Neither is really superior to the other, and both are worth trying. I use the green one more often with salads and raw preparations, the red in soups and hot noodle dishes. Both are outstanding in cold noodle bowls, with the green getting the nod if I am using a lot of raw vegetables and herbs and the red if the majority of accompaniments are pickled or preserved. Fish? Green. Pork? Red. Tofu dishes? Both harmonize quite capably.

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First, you will need to choose appropriate chiles. I would avoid extremely fire-y chiles like Thai bird or habanero chiles, as they tend to be somewhat overpowering in a sriracha. Remember, this sauce is almost entirely chiles with only a smattering of other seasonings. What is wanted here is a deep, resonant, complex heat, not a pain-inducing power sauce. For a green sauce, jalapenos are completely appropriate. With red, look for either fresno chiles (sometimes erroneously called red jalapenos) or hot red cherry peppers. Cherries are my favorite, they have a perfect balance of hot and sweet that shines in both this sauce and the related chile-garlic sauce known as tuong ot toi. In fact, I have grown these chiles in the past couple of years explicitly for the purpose of making these particular sauces. You will want to experiment with this recipe, using the chiles you can grow or buy locally and that suit your particular taste. My only word of advice would be to avoid being overly macho the first time you make this. Use jalapenos or medium-heat red chiles and see how you like it before stepping up the heat.

Roughly chop :

1 lb medium-hot chiles, green or red (but NOT a mix of the two), de-stemmed and NOT de-seeded

.5 oz crushed, peeled garlic (a few cloves)

Combine in a food processor with :

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

1.5 oz palm sugar (regular white sugar can be substituted but the taste is inferior as well as less authentic)

Pulse until well-chopped but not liquified.

Place into a glass or plastic container, cover with a towel and allow to sit at room temperature for several days.

When the sauce begins to take on a fermented smell and begins to bubble ever so slightly (you may find this is easier to SMELL and HEAR than SEE), usually about 3 or 4 days (less in hot weather, perhaps more in cold), place in a saucepan with :

1/3 cup vinegar (I use Korean brewing vinegar for this, but white vinegar is also good. Seasoned rice vinegar and apple cider vinegar CAN be used but they impart more sweetness to the finished product.)

Bring to a low simmer and cook for five minutes or so.

Puree in a blender or food processor. If the mixture seems to thick add a spoonful or two of water, but be conservative.

Strain through a wire mesh sieve into a squeeze bottle or jar.

Use with, on and in everything.

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N.B. : You may find that you have quite a lot of seeds and pulp that will not fit through the strainer. I strongly encourage you to make a fermented salsa or sambal from this remainder, you will not find that it lacks heat or flavor.

Pickled Burdock Root

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Place in the bottom of a glass pint jar :

1/2 oz turmeric root, peeled and sliced into a few long strips (optional, can use turmeric powder instead)

1 tsp whole black peppercorns

1 tsp whole yellow or black mustard seed

1/2 tsp whole pieces of vietnamese cinnamon

1 star anise, broken up

Fill with peeled burdock batons : cut batons to the height of the jar (allowing room for the spices and headspace) and about half as thick around as a pencil. Pack batons into jar until you cannot fit any more. Keep all the batons vertical. Trim any that stick out too far. This should require around 3/4 of a pound to a pound of burdock root.

Heat in a small saucepan until the sugar and salt are dissolved :

1/2 cup seasoned rice vinegar

2 tsp sugar

1 tsp salt

When dissolved and the vinegar is still hot, pour into the filled jar. Allow to cool, then cover and refrigerate. Add more seasoned rice vinegar as needed to cover the batons.

This will be ready to eat when cool, but tastiest after at least 24 hours. It should last several weeks.

This can be made with either wild burdock root or the cultivated kind sometimes found in asian markets.