27 June 2014

Spruce up Your Gravlax

A recipe so smart, you'd be foolish not to try it.

Foraged spruce tips and juniper berries were used to flavour the salt cure for this gravlax recipe.

Spruce and Juniper Scented Gravlax

2 tbsp young spruce buds
6 wild juniper berries
1 + 1 tbsp coarse sea salt
2 tbsp granulated sugar
salmon, filleted, skin-on* 
2 tbsp local vodka (we used vodka made with iceberg water)

*this recipe is good for up to 2 lbs of salmon, but it's easy to scale up or down as needed.  Also, you will want either 2 fairly even-sized pieces or a large piece that can be cut into 2 more-or-less equal-sized bits.  For frugal gravlax, buy the cheaper tail end fillets.  If you go to an independent local fish monger (like The Fish Depot in downtown St. John's) and tell them what you are planning to do, they will help you find the right piece of fish.

Grind the spruce tips and juniper berries with half the salt.
In a spice grinder (or using a mortar and pestle) grind together spruce buds, juniper berries and 1 tbsp of the sea salt to a fine powder.  Combine with remaining coarse salt and sugar.

Spread the curing mixture over the salmon, but do not rub in.
If your fish is in one piece, cut it in half.  Spread a large piece of plastic wrap over your work surface and place the fish on it, skin side down.  Lightly spread a thick layer of the spice and salt mix over the fish (don't rub!).  Get one hand under one piece of fish.  Working quickly, pour the vodka over the other piece of fish and turn the dry piece onto it.  Wrap tightly in the plastic wrap**.

**if you are hopelessly inept with plastic wrap, make sure you have a friend on-site who can do the wrapping for you... it's important to get it closed up tight to contain the vodka quickly

Once the salmon is wrapped, use a heavy flat stone (or
weighted plate) to press the fish during curing.  
At this point, take a deep breath and look at your packet to make sure you've followed the instructions:  you should have spice and salt mix sandwiched between two pieces of salmon; the salmon should be flesh-to-flesh with the skin out.  There will be liquid all over the place inside the plastic wrap.  Good?  Good.  Put that packet into a plastic zipper bag, squeezing out the air as you seal it.

Put the salmon on a flat plate or platter or tray.  Put a flat, heavy, gravlax stone on top of it***.  Refrigerate for 3 days to cure the salmon, turning it twice a day when you feed your dogs****.

***You don't have a gravlax stone???  You can top the salmon with another flat plate and weigh the plate down with a brick or stone or large jar of pickles.

****You don't feed your dogs twice a day?  What do you mean you don't even have dogs?  We flip gravlax (and rinse sprouts, change salt cod soaking water, and do other things that need to be done twice a day) at 5 am and 5 pm.  You don't necessarily need to get up with caribougrrl to make gravlax... just remember to flip it over about every 12 hours.

After 3 days, remove the gravlax from it's packaging and rinse under cold water.  Pat dry gently with clean kitchen towel (or paper towels).  Store in an airtight container in the fridge. (If it lasts long enough without being eaten, this will store for a week or two according to the varying advice on the miracle of the internet.)

To serve, use a sharp knife to separate from the skin and slice thinly.  Eat on open-face sandwiches of rye bread or rye crackers, with mustard and yogurt sauce, and dandelion capers.  Or on bagels with cream cheese... on sandwiches, salads, pizza, pasta...

One of our favourite ways to eat gravlax is thinly sliced on rye crackers with mustard sauce and dandelion capers.


Anyone who's had good salmon sashimi can verify that fresh raw salmon is soft and buttery and beautiful as-is.  Salt-curing salmon concentrates and intensifies those qualities, extends the shelf life of the fish, and turns the salmon from a wholesome to a jeweled pink.  It looks almost too opulent to eat.  

I can't find a specific scientific paper or pop science article to back this up, but I once heard a radio program about the benefits of green space and being outside in the wilderness.  The thing that stuck in my mind from that radio show was that walking through coniferous forest is especially good for you.  Specifically, that inhaling the scent of spruce and pine improves cognitive function.

Which means the smell of spruce -- and by extension I will assume the taste, because it's all the olfactory system anyway -- is good for your brain.  And we've known for a long time that fish is brain food. So with all the appropriate warnings about unscientific and unsubstantiated claims: eating spruce-cured salmon will make you smarter.


Identifying and Harvesting Spruce Tips and Juniper Berries in the Rain****

****this also works on not-rainy days...

We took the dogs with us on a rainy day foraging trip.  Bella was not convinced spruce tips were edible, but found that a good spruce branch makes a passable umbrella.

Spruce and juniper are both conifers, but spruce are all tall and up-righty, while juniper are more of a prickly woody ground cover.


Spruce is a short-needled coniferous tree, with tough (i.e. prickly) needles
spiralling around the branches. The needles are round and will roll easily
between your fingers.

The species of spruce you harvest makes no difference.  From a safety perspective, it's not even vital in the boreal forest that you can distinguish spruce from pine, larch and fir since the young tips from all of them can be used as a seasoning.  Nonetheless, there are differences in scent and therefore differences in flavour, so you may as well learn to tell them apart.

Pine trees have LONG needles in clusters of 2-5.  When you think a Group Of Seven painting, it's probably a pine tree you have featured in your mind.  They are the charismatic ones.

Larch (also called tamarack, called juniper in Newfoundland, just to be confusing) have short needles found in clusters, like tufts.  They lose their needles every year, so all the needles you see are young-of-the-year.  (Yes, I did just tell you about a deciduous conifer, feel free to call your grade 3 teacher and pass on that tidbit.)

Fir trees have short flat needles which grow along the length of the branch... if you look closely, they are in opposite pairs.  You cannot easily roll the needles between your fingers, though I'm sure some cheeky teenager would show you it can be done.

Spruce, then.  Spruce trees have short needles spiralled along the length of the branch.  The needles roll easily between your fingers.  This is the tree you are looking for for this recipe.

Spruce tips are the soft new bright green growth on the tree.  When the buds are swelling enough to break through the paper, they are ready to pick.
The young-of-the-year needles on spruce are bright green and soft.  Early enough in the year, they will still have a papery cap on them.  If you are picking spruce tips for pickling or other applications where you want them to stay whole, choose swollen tips that still have paper.  If you are using them as a spice, go ahead and harvest them any time before they harden up and get dark.

When you pick them, take a few from here and a few from there... you are pruning the tree, so be respectful of it.

Juniper Berries

Juniper is a low-growing evergreen with needles.  Juniper berries are actually cones, it's just that the cone scales are fleshy and merged together, making it look like a berry.  The best way to find the berries is to lift a branch of juniper up and look under it.

Look underneath the juniper branches for the berry-like cones.  The ripe
ones are sometimes quite dry and shrivelled in the spring but rub it
between your fingers: if it has some scent, use it.
Juniper berries take 1-3 years to mature, and birds apparently love the ripe ones, so chances are good any juniper you investigate will have many more green berries than blue ones.  In the spring, the ripe blue juniper berries are drier and less fragrant than they were in the fall, so you need more of them this time of year.  Roll them gently between your fingers and if there's any scent to them, they will work.  If they are dry and shrivelled and have no scent, it's probably not worth using. 

You might have heard that juniper berries are toxic, and I would suggest that eating handfuls of juniper berries is not a good idea.  As a spice or seasoning, however, there is no reason to be alarmed.  (With the usual caveats that if you are pregnant or have serious health concerns, you might want to leave them out of the recipe.)

Spruce and Juniper Scented Gravlax on Punk Domestics

13 June 2014

Stingin' in the Rain

Using the same chemical weapon as fire ants, there's something just a little Day-of-the-Triffids about stinging nettles.  But not to worry, they're only dangerous until you cook them.

Serve nettles cooked in red wine over fried polenta and top with some shaved parmesan.  A first course worth building a dinner party menu around.
Stinging Nettle and Polenta Starter

for the polenta

1 c. chicken stock
1 c. nettle tea (see below) or vegetable stock
generous pinch of salt
3/4 c. cornmeal
1/2 tbsp good quality olive oil
butter for pan-frying (bonus points for using your own hand-crafted butter!)

for the nettles

1 tbsp olive oil (or more or less to coat bottom of skillet)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
ground pepper to taste
salt to taste
1 dried red chili pepper, torn into pieces
1 c. blanched and drained stinging nettle leaves (see below), roughly chopped
1/4 c. red wine
1/4 c. nettle tea (see below) or water
Parmesan-Reggiano, shaved, to taste

Prepare the polenta at least 3 hours and up to 2 days ahead of time.  In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the stock, nettle tea and salt over med-high heat until boiling.  Turn down to medium, but keep the liquid at a rolling boil and slowly pour cornmeal in, stirring constantly to prevent lumps.  Turn the heat down more if the polenta is sputtering.  Continue stirring until the cornmeal is cooked and the polenta is thick.  Remove from heat.  When the mixture is no longer bubbling, stir in the olive oil.  Pour into a square baking pan (glass, non-stick, or lightly oiled), spread to corners and level out.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours to set the polenta.

(Three hours, conveniently, is enough time to go back out to pick and process another batch of stinging nettles for the freezer.)
You can tell they're good for you just by looking at the rich green colour
of the blanched stinging nettles.  They taste good too.

Prep your nettle ingredients.  Cut the polenta into 4 squares and set aside. (Trim the outside for a more even edge, the scraps can be fried as a snack or to dip in soft-cooked eggs for breakfast...)

You do have at least two skillets, right? 

Put a generous pat of butter into the pan where you plan to fry the polenta.

In your other skillet (the one you have a lid for), heat olive oil over medium-high heat.  Saute garlic and shallot until softened.  Add black pepper, salt and hot pepper and saute for another minute.  Add nettles toss until fully covered in oil and slightly wilted (1-2 minutes). 

Turn the heat under your polenta pan to medium.

Add red wine to nettles and stir until liquid has evaporated.  Turn heat down to med-low, add nettle tea, cover and cook for 5-6 minutes.

While the nettles steam, fry your polenta squares.  When the butter in your polenta pan is thin and the foam is subsiding, add the squares of polenta.  Cook 2-3 minutes on each side until heated through.  They should have a thin golden brown crust.

Remove cover from nettles and allow any remaining liquid to evaporate.

To plate, top each polenta square with 1/4 of the nettle mixture, then artfully place shaved parmesan on top.  Serve as a first course.  (This would also make a good side dish for grilled salmon or lobster.)

Nettles have a very present yet delicate flavour but none of the bitterness that many wild greens have... their defense is stinging, so they don't need to taste bad to avoid being eaten.  While the flavour is not as strong as mature spinach, but the texture is much meatier.  


There is an enormous nettle patch a short diversion from one of our favourite coastal trails.  Getting ready to head out foraging, it felt a bit insane choosing to go out gathering food in the famous Newfoundland rain, drizzle and fog... especially knowing that when we returned, we'd be cold and damp and the dogs would inevitably smell like, well, wet dogs.

Bella and Sam are inevitably "helpful" when we're foraging.
To save them from their loyal and eager-to-please selves,
we tethered them away from the stinging nettle patch.
Bella was smart enough to take advantage of the tree and
get out of the rain.  Sam, on the other hand...
But if you always wait for perfect weather to go outside, you might rarely leave your house.  (Especially if live on an island in the North Atlantic.)  You'd miss out on the magic of being in water-saturated air... sure, it's wet, but the colour of the rocks and trees and birds is deeper and fuller and sound travels with more richness.  The reduced visibility makes the world a bit smaller and cozier.

As we were wading, drenched, through the knee-high patch of nettle, snapping of the tops of the plants, we heard the drone of an outboard motor halt.  It's funny how sometimes you only hear a noise because it stops.  The motor cut and was followed by the hollow thump-thump of lobster pots being checked.  The motor starts, then stops, thump-thump, thump-thump, repeat.  The rhythm of that work is very distinct to the ear and even though we both knew what we were listening to, we looked up anyway, because that's what you do.  

As though waiting for us to turn away from the nettles, a massive bald eagle suddenly flew close enough and low enough we could distinguish the yellowish-whites of its eyes.  An eagle beside us, a lobster boat below us, a couple of great big bags full of nettle... that's exactly why we were out in the rain instead of bundled up on the couch watching the new season of Orange is the New Black.


Identifying and handling stinging nettle (Urtica spp.)

Nettles tend to grow in patches and can often be spotted by the change
in texture they create.
Stinging nettle is most commonly found in disturbed and disused areas.  Old pastures, abandoned properties, gardens, the edges of your composter, fence lines...  it's also found on roadsides, but don't bother looking there, you don't want the contamination from exhaust fumes anyway.

The easiest way to identify a nettle is by touching it.  If you've ever walked through a patch of tall weeds when wearing short pants, only to find your legs prickling with fire, you've encountered stinging nettle.  The touch-method is not recommended.  Head out dressed for the job: long pants, long sleeves, gloves.

Since it was rain-drizzle-and-fogging the day we went out searching for nettle, in addition to pocketing a pair of rubberized gloves, I wore my rain suit.  Rain jacket, rain pants, rubber boots.  No matter that we've lived in rural Newfoundland for over 6 years, Fefe Noir's fashion rules irrationally exclude rain pants.  She refers to them as my "plastic trousers" and rolls her eyes at me whenever I put them on.  But who got the last laugh?  Not only did I stay dry, but as we were wading through a field of nettle, Fefe discovered that you can, indeed, be stung by nettle through a pair of jeans.

(But wait, between that handicap and her photo-taking duties, I ended up doing most of the actual harvesting...)

Stinging nettles are easily identified by touch, but try to avoid finding them that way.  Look for slender plants with large, toothed leaves in opposite pairs.  The stems and leaves are fuzzy from being covered in stinging hairs.

Nettles are tall plants with slender stems and paired leaves.  The leaves are broad but come to a definite point on the ends and the edges are toothed.  The leaves and stem are covered in tiny hairs.  The flowers are green-ish and hang in clusters, but you don't need to know that much: if it's already flowering, it's too late in the year (but write the location down somewhere so you can come back next year, earlier).

Wear rubberized gloves when you pick stinging nettle.
For older plants (over 20 cm high), snap off the top
15-20 cm only.
USE HEAVY RUBBERIZED GLOVES when you pick them.  Take the whole above-ground part of the plant if it is really young (less than 20 cm high); if the plant is older but not yet flowering, pick the top 15-20 cm.  A lot of people use scissors or garden shears for harvesting, but we found it awkward to hold kitchen scissors with our big rubberized gloves, so just broke the stem off with gloved fingers for efficiency's sake.

Once you're home and ready to process the nettles, keep your gloves on while you break off the top young leaves and pull the older leaves from the stem.  Toss the stems and rejected leaves (brown, moth-eaten, bruised) into your composter.  Blanch the nettle in saltwater to neutralize the sting, and squeeze the nettle tea from them.  Hank Shaw provides a very good description of processing stinging nettles, so I will direct you there rather than taking up unnecessary space.  Save the nettle tea for this recipe, or to use as a substitute for vegetable broth in all sorts of dishes.

Stingin' in the Rain on Punk Domestics