Spruce Tips

It was a lovely spring evening, my friends and I had just finished a pleasant dinner and it was still light enough to permit an evening walk. Buoyed with the energy of increasing light, I suggested an evening spruce tip gathering expedition. We drove to my favorite open-grown spruce harvesting location. Bathed in the dueling songs of robins and juncos and the sweet fragrance of spruce, we moved quietly between the trees, picking off the lovely pale green new growth, taking care to distribute our gathering efforts between trees. After about two hours of picking we called it good, hands dotted with little blood spots from contact with the older needles, laden with satisfyingly hefty re-used shopping bags of new growth spruce tips.
Back in the kitchen, I set about to make spruce tip syrup. Here is the recipe I used, it is great on waffles, sourdough pancakes, and ice cream! Enjoy.

Caramelized Spruce Tip Syrup
This recipe produces a deep brown and deliciously sprucey syrup. Take care not to burn while you are reducing and thickening. Also, stop abruptly when you’ve got the syrup as thick as you like as the thickening accelerates at the end.

Tools:
5-gallon stock pot
Slotted spoon
Canning jars and lids
Jar grabber
Magnetic lid grabber
Colander
Funnel
Hot water bath

Ingredients:
4 c spruce tips
2 c sugar
2 c water

Instructions:
Pick spruce tips clean of brown covers.
Dump cleaned spruce tips in stock pot, cover with the water, put lid on pot and bring to boil.
Turn off heat, leave to soak overnight.
Strain spruce tips from water with colander, return water to stock pot, add sugar.
Cook sweetened, infused water on medium low heat for 30-40 minutes stirring regularly until desired thickness and color are achieved.
Sterilize jars and lids in hot water bath.
Pour syrup into sterilized jars, attach lid, invert to cool and store until ready to enjoy.

 

Flower arranging

As you may have gathered—I am emphatically not a city girl! Thus, living in Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world, for two years was initially very challenging for me. I was saved by flowers. Spending time in Japanese gardens gives you a feeling that is similar to being in nature. My favorite garden was the Meiji Jingu, a simple but elegant garden with hundreds of types of iris and a little thousand-year-old tea house nestled in a cozy nook. In addition to the occasional escapes to gardens, I took weekly flower arranging (ikebana) classes with a kimono-garbed sensei (teacher) in an elegant room above a flower shop in a good neighborhood of Tokyo. Each week I could feel myself unwinding as I took the metro to the class. Then there was the ritual of buying flowers, carefully choosing flowers of complimentary dimensions, colors, and character under the watchful eye of my sensei. My Japanese classmates and I spent the next hour arranging our flowers, then sipping tea and admiring each other’s arrangements, making a few corrections at the gentle suggestion of sensei, then disassembling the arrangement to carry it home in our specially made flower bags. On the subway on the way home, I received approving glances from my fellow passengers. Their eyes said, here is a gaijin (foreigner) who is really taking in our culture, not just blasting through temple-gazing. The whole experience was lovely.
Mostly I did a pretty good job fitting into Japanese culture, but it became increasingly difficult the longer I lived there as the expectations of my conforming to the culture increased with my knowledge of it. I occasionally rebelled, not purposefully but just because I couldn’t stand acting Japanese for a minute longer. One such instance involved ikebana. It was fall and I was on my way to my ikebana class when I passed a gingko tree in full fall colors. I cut the requisite three branches and headed off to ikebana, feeling pleased with myself but a little like George Washington must have after he cut the cherry tree down. It made for a great arrangement, but my ikebana sensei was not impressed. I didn’t repeat the offense!
I brought my ikebana equipment with me when I came home to Southeast Alaska and have been reveling in the abundance of luxuriant foliage to make gorgeous flower arrangements ever since. My current style is more ikebana-inspired than strict ikebana. I especially like to combine wild, home-grown, and store-bought greenery and flowers. It’s a great way to make special flower arrangements and saves you tons of money. As always, take care not to impact your community by overharvesting right off the trail and . . . ENJOY!!

Resources

Ikebana International

 

Elderflowers

I became interested in using elder flowers after reading one of Alexander McCall Smith’s books; it was his ‘Sunday Philosophy Club’ series about the stodgy Scottish amateur sleuth, Isabel Dalhousie. His description of her drinking elder flower cordial on a warm summer day was so appealing I set about to make it myself! This was a particularly satisfying project as we have TONS of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) bushes in Juneau and I have never known what to do with them. The process is slightly labor-intensive, as it is necessary to remove as much of the toxic stems as possible from the flower bunches. Also, the flowers must be picked when completely open on a dry day, so the harvest timing window is narrow! According to Janice Schofield (Discovering Wild Plants), Scandinavian custom dictates that you beg permission of Hylde-moer, ‘lady of the elder’ before cutting elder!

Elder flower cordial
This is really just a simple syrup made from elder flowers. It can be mixed with white wine, champagne, or sparkling water to make a fragrant and refreshing party beverage. Honestly though, it is a slightly unusual flavor that some people love and others do not—tell me what you think of it!

Tools:
5-gal stock pan
Colander
Kitchen towel
Large bowl
Glass bottles with swing-top lid
Hot water bath
Funnel
Ladle

Ingredients:
5 ½ lb sugar
6 c water
2 lemons
20 Elder flower heads, stalks removed
3 oz citric acid

Instructions:
Put sugar and water into stock pan, gently heat until sugar has dissolved, stirring occasionally.
Pare zest from lemons using peeler then slice lemons into rounds.
Once sugar has dissolved, bring syrup to boil, then turn off heat.
Wash flowers gently with cold water to remove dirt or bugs, gently shake water off and transfer to syrup along with lemons, zest, and citric acid.
Stir well, cover and leave to infuse 24 hrs.
Line a colander with the kitchen towel and strain infused syrup into large bowl.
Sterilize glass bottles in hot water bath.
Ladle syrup into sterilized bottles.

How Not to Pick Nettles!

It was gorgeous and sunny last week! On Wednesday I spent the morning sunning myself and going for the first swim of the year (refreshing but chilly!) Then in the afternoon a friend and I went hunting wild greens. First, we targeted twisted stalk (Streptopus species), fiddlehead ferns, and devils club (Oplopanax horridus) buds. Then we went to get a few dandelion greens (Teraxacum species) and some stinging nettle (Urtica species). I dutifully made sure we had gloves along but somehow neglected to notice that I was wearing shorts. Wow. A day later and my legs are still tingling!! I’m hoping for some long-lasting effects of the nettle stings on my wimpy arthritic knee, but I sure won’t make that mistake again, even if it does help my knee. The pickles I made from the greens were no mistake, however. I used the twisted stalk, fiddleheads, and devils club buds and they are getting scarfed down fast. Really a tasty variation to my usual blanched wild greens with butter or balsamic vinegar and olive oil. I highly recommend you give this a try with whatever slightly toothsome wild green you have at hand.
There are a few things besides nettle stings to be careful of in gathering these plant species. First,  harvest only the growing tip of a mature nettle plant, older leaves are inedible, second care should be taken not to confuse young twisted stalk with the very poisonous false hellebore (Veratrum species), and third, only completely furled fiddleheads of species besides the bracken fern (which have been associated with stomach cancer) should be gathered. Refer early and often to a good plant identification book! Finally, take care to avoid overharvesting.

Pickled Wild Greens
Tools:
Medium saucepan
Measuring cups and spoons
2 pint canning jars and lids
Hot water bath
Jar grabber

Ingredients:
Twisted stalk
Fiddleheads
Devils club buds
1 c apple cider vinegar
1 c water
1 T kosher salt
1 T sugar
2 cloves garlic
1 sprig thyme
½ t black peppercorns
¼ t cardamom
¼ t mustard seed
3 allspice seeds
2 cloves

Instructions:
Put vinegar, water, salt, and sugar in saucepan and bring to boil.
Sterilize pint jars in hot water bath.
Peel and crush garlic cloves, put into pint jars along with spices and thyme sprig.
Steam fiddleheads for 3-5 minutes.
Stuff pint jars with wild greens, pack full it will shrink.
Pour vinegar solution over greens and spices.
Screw lids onto jars, turn upside down to seal and cool.
Once cooled, check to see if jars have sealed. If so they can be stored without refrigeration, if not, refrigerate and eat at your leisure!

Love Song to Wild Salmon

Cooking shows, blogs, and cook books these days love to expound upon the merits and cooking methods of ‘farmed’ versus ‘wild’ salmon. This totally neglects the fact that there are five species of wild Pacific salmon: Chinook (king, Oncorhynchus tschawytsha), Coho (silver, Oncorhynchus kisutch), Sockeye (red, Oncorhynchus nerka), Chum (dog, Oncorhynchus keta), and Pink (humpy, Oncorhynchus gorbuscha); and one Atlantic salmonid species (Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar—actually a trout) which is commercially extinct and has been adapted to salmon farming. One of the wonders, and vulnerabilities of wild salmon is that they are uniquely adapted to their spawning environment. This results in countless genetically unique stocks of each species, each returning to spawn in a very specific portion of a watershed at a specific time of year and after a specific number of years in freshwater followed by a specific number of years in salt water. These unique adaptations result in very different eating qualities. Through my career as a fisheries biologist, fisherman, and having been raised on a sockeye lake, I’ve had the honor of getting to know many of these stocks.
During my undergraduate education I was fortunate enough to be able to work during the summers for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as a fisheries technician. I took my summer work as an opportunity to explore Alaska, which is otherwise large, remote, and expensive to travel around. My first major exploration was to take a job on a weir on a tributary of the upper Kuskokwim River. I flew into McGrath, a roadless town of about 400 people 220 air miles northwest of Anchorage, in early June. My partner met me at the plane and we shopped and loaded our river boats with the weir materials. Having perhaps slightly exaggerated my river boating experience in the short phone interview that got me the job, I was somewhat daunted to be given command of the smaller of the two boats and sent on my way upriver with instructions to avoid snags close to shore and take the first right and then the first left. He would follow me in the second, faster riverboat in about an hour, after completing a little more shopping. My boating experience to date was considerable, but none of it involved navigating large, fast-moving, muddy rivers full of snags and sand bars in a heavily loaded, flat-bottomed riverboat with a propeller-driven outboard engine. One thing you learn early as a woman in a man’s profession is to show no fear, pain, or uncertainty. So, I gamely headed upstream, white knuckling the outboard tiller and squinting at every muddy swirl in an attempt to avoid hazards. After about an hour underway, I was beginning to relax. I’d successfully navigated the first turn and saw the next one right ahead. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was enjoying the solitude, just then the boat ground to one of those engine-screaming, propeller-mud-flinging stops that every riverboat operator dreads. I was high on a sand bar and heavily loaded with 50-gallon drums of gas and metal weir pickets, there was no way I was going to get off by myself. Happily, 15 bug-ridden minutes later, my partner arrived, and we were able to shift my load into his boat enough to float me off and resume our trip upstream.

It was the beginning of a beautiful summer. We built a weir and field camp and counted about 200 king salmon in the three-month field season. This left plenty of time to explore the area, part of the dreaded Fairwell Burn (a nightmarish stretch of the Iditarod trail famed for its fire-killed trees, wind, and sparse snow) by riverboat. We visited neighboring fish camps, eating dry fish strips and taking steam baths. The abundant dead trees make the area a summer bird mecca and we saw owls and discovered osprey nests in our forays. We were on a clear-water tributary and so could see the king salmon well. They were large, and very red so close to the spawning grounds. We didn’t kill any, but our fish camp neighbors gave us some steaks and they were still amazingly pink-fleshed, fatty and delicious despite being so close to spawning grounds. They were very special fish. We kept a clean camp and saw few brown bears that summer, they are much less dense in the interior of Alaska.

So, you might be wondering by now what is my point in relaying this story? I think it is that when you eat wild salmon you are participating in an ecosystem and that concomitant with that participation comes a commitment to preserve and protect.
Some years later, I participated in the troll fishery for king salmon in Southeast Alaska. I have a particularly strong memory of one day. After much agonizing, Tom had decided that we’d begin our King salmon troll season at Point Amelia, on West Kruzof Island. It turned out to be an excellent decision. We caught over 100 king salmon that sunny morning. So far from the spawning grounds, each was a bright beautiful bullet of a fish, with individuality suggesting their varying origins in their underlaying glints of maroon, green or blue. Salmon trolling was a wonderful experience. It combines applied biology with the hunter-gatherer’s joy of being in the moment, alternating with long periods of boredom. We trolled alongside humpback whales, peacefully sharing the fishing grounds, and fished for cohos in offshore jelly fish forests—visible only on the sonar and on our lines when they were pulled to the surface. The coho stomachs there were filled with the juvenile cod that shelter in jelly fish forests.
Fast forward to today and king salmon stocks in many areas of Alaska are in trouble. Stocks are declining and the size of salmon returning to spawn has decreased dramatically. There is uncertainty as to what is causing these problems, but it seems to be a result of reduced marine survival and growth. Earlier juvenile outmigration (because of warming rivers) at a time when the ocean food conditions are poor could reduce survival. Other potential reducers of marine survival include: interception by non-target fisheries, and impacts to high seas migration by ocean current changes. Slowed growth may be being caused by ecosystem changes, caused either by climate change, or by excessive hatchery releases of pink and chum salmon. There are many efforts underway to enhance sustainability of our wild salmon stocks. Join the struggle!
Oven-Broiled King Salmon

King salmon is probably my favorite wild Pacific salmon, but I love coho and sockeye too. Chum roe is delicious in sushi or as an appetizer or garnish (Chum roe has the highest price because its eggs are largest, next comes pink, coho, king, and finally sockeye salmon). Chums and pinks make great salmon burgers. Here is my favorite recipe for oven-broiled king salmon. I don’t trust myself with it on the grill, I’ve lost too many belly strip pieces between the grates! My mouth is watering just thinking about it, time to run to the grocery store.
Tools:
broiler pan
knife
ziplock bag
small bowl
wire whisk

Ingredients:
2 lbs King salmon steaks
½ c soy sauce
½ c brown sugar
4 T sesame oil
2 T yellow miso
4 T grated ginger
½ t crushed red pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
½ t black pepper

Instructions:
Mix marinade ingredients together, pour into zip lock bag.
Add king salmon steaks.
Marinate for ½ to 2 hours.
Heat broiler pan under broiler for 5-7 minutes at highest oven rack position.
Put king salmon steaks on broiler pan, return to oven, broil for about 7 minutes or until just beginning to caramelize.
Baste with marinade, switch oven to bake at 400 F.
Bake for about 12 minutes depending upon thickness of steaks until just beginning to flake.
Serve with rice.

Resources
www.standforsalmon.org
www.seacc.org
www.akmarine.org
https://alaskaconservation.org
https://www.tu.org

Edible Flowers

Its spring and there are so many tasty plants to gather that people sometimes neglect some of the more beautiful ones—edible flowers! I first tried this on the occasion of my sister Justine’s wedding. It makes such a beautiful addition to a wedding cake that I’d highly recommend anyone with a friend or family member having a Summer wedding coming up try it. I’ve given the recipe here for violets and salmonberry flowers but there are lots of other edible flowers. Nasturtiums, pansies, rose petals, zucchini, lilac, geraniums, begonias, borage, and lavender; to name a few, are all also edible. That being said, I think sugaring probably works best on delicate flowers because they dry rapidly.

Sugared Violets and Salmonberry Flowers
Tools:
Small paint brush

Ingredients:
10 freshly picked violets
10 freshly picked salmonberry flowers
1 egg worth of powdered egg whites (don’t use fresh, this avoids salmonella)
6 drops 100-proof vodka
Superfine (caster) sugar

Instructions:
Resuscitate egg whites and beat until frothy. The addition of vodka will help the flowers dry more quickly. Paint each flower thoroughly with the beaten egg white mix. Set on wire rack to dry. Once sugared, the flowers last up to a year in the fridge if they are kept dry. Store in air tight container and layer with paper towels.

 

IMG_0360 (2)
Sugared yellow violet and salmonberry flowers.

 

In Praise of Native Landscaping: Permaculture Your Yard!

When I was a 10-year-old tomboy I had strong ideas about trees, I remember spending a tear-streaked afternoon with my arms wrapped around my favorite climbing tree, a red alder (Alnus rubrus), which my father was determined to fell (In his defense, light is at more of a premium than native trees in Southeast Alaska). In the end, I prevailed and that Alder, plus another some years later, survived. Their survival was because of both my stubbornness and my father’s love of native trees and shrubs. Over the years he transplanted many into our yard. He also loved other trees though and was an eternal optimist. He planted various maples (Acer), a Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and some Birch (Betula) trees, a flowering plum and others into the yard. I remember a surge of enthusiastic excitement with the introduction of each new exotic tree as visions of fresh cherries, or plums danced through my head. None of them ever bore fruit however, and I survived the disappointment as the much-vaunted fruit trees gradually drowned or were eaten by porcupines, beavers or bear. In the end several of the maples, the birch and the Douglas fir did survive.
My early passion for those red alder trees is now bearing fruit in the form of birdwatching opportunities. The winter flocks of pine siskins and redpolls virtually ignore the maples and Douglas Fir, as they enjoy the alder seeds. In the Spring the alders flower and warblers hawk for insects in their branches while robins anoint their crowns with song each morning and evening, nesting in a secret crook in one of the trees. In addition to the red alder, the 2-acre yard of my family home has native crabapple (Malus fusca), Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Sitka mountain ash (Sorbus sitchensis), red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum) , blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), devils club (Oplopanax horridus), rusty menzesia (Menziesia ferruginea), and winter chanterelle mushrooms (Craterellus tubaeformis). Red-breasted sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus ruber) and hairy woodpeckers (Picoides villosus) flit between the hemlocks, while song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) nest in brush piles, and red cross bills (Loxia curvirostra) and pine grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator) binge on crab apples and mountain ash berries.
This plethora of native vegetation and its location on a salmon lake also brings many mammal visitors to our home. Black bear (Ursus americanus), beaver (Castor canadensis), river otter (Lontra canadensis), porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum), and Sitka black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis) often grace the yard. It is not always an easy sharing of space, however. The black bears ruined several mountain ash trees by climbing them to eat their berries in the fall and their occasional transit through the yard causes a general evacuation of humans. Their presence also necessitates a cessation of bird feeding each spring as they come out of hibernation. Beavers felled several prized exotic crabapple trees, and porcupines have demolished raspberry bushes and been subject to dog attentions that required the dogs get expensive veterinary care. The deer’s passion for hostas often leaves them lopsided. The deer also enjoy the ‘lawn’ (quotes denoting the fact that it is more buttercup, dandelions, moss, and violets than grass). The lawn composition is because I stopped liming and fertilizing it a few years ago after noticing that the lily pads in the lake are being replaced by horsetail and that freshwater mussels have disappeared. I think it is possible that these effects are a result of changed water chemistry due to runoff of lawn fertilizer and herbicides.
We still maintain flower beds, a few pots of vegetables, and a rhubarb and raspberry patch but the native vegetation provides harvest values to us as well. We pick blueberries, salmonberries, and chanterelle mushrooms from the yard, and cut the occasional tree for fire wood. This year I’m going to try eating the cow parsnip for the first time as I’ve called a (sheepish) truce on poisoning it with Round Up. (Honestly, it’s the only thing I’ve ever used Round Up on and I’m not proud, but it does cause a terrible rash if brushed up against by a lawn-mowing human.) I’ve also been seeing that Scandinavians use mountain ash sprigs (they call it ‘Rohan’ which sounds much more edible) and I’m going to try that too!
So, look around your area, see what the birds and mammals are eating and bring some trees and shrubs home. You’ll save time trying to force the land to be something different from what it wants to be, and money buying exotics and make a lot of birds and animals happy in the process! (Also you can tell everyone you’re into Permaculture and you’ll sound really hip!)