Azalea Galls: Food or Death?

Nothing makes me more interested in a new food than trying to figure out if it might kill me. Such is the case with the pinxter apple, a gall formed by Exobacidium fungi on typically poisonous rhododendron species.

There are plenty of reports of people eating these things in the eastern US. The taste is described as follows:

…and it seems that it’s made its way to at least one restaurant table.

Reading the context in these reports, they’re always talking about a pink azalea growing in wetlands in the eastern US. Probably this means Rhododendron periclymenoides, possibly R. canescens or even R. viscosum.

If there is a historical tradition of eating something – and clearly there are many people who’ve eaten pinxter apples – that is all the evidence I need to discount the dire warnings about “mad honey” and other forms of rhododendron poisoning. Maybe there are trace quantities of grayanotoxin in pinxter apples, but many people have eaten these things in moderate quantities without suffering obvious harm, so I’d feel comfortable trying one.

But the rhodies that line Washington’s country roads are completely different species, with no known tradition of gall-eating. And honestly, despite the lack of reported fatalities, grayanotoxin poisoning does not sound fun.

I put out a call for any gardeners growing pinxter azaleas on my local Buy Nothing group, but unsurprisingly did not get any bites. We’re proud of our R. macrophyllum around here. Maybe someday, if I visit the Appalachians at the right time of year, I’ll find a pinxter apple to try. Until then, well, if I really want a mild-tasting crunchy wet plant to eat, there’s always horsetail shoots.

Cooking with Lilac

A few quick notes on what I’ve learned from playing around with lilacs the past couple years.

I’ve tried several ways of extracting and preserving lilac flavors: in alcohol, in simple syrup, in dry sugar, distilled into a hydrosol using a crude pan-with-inverted-lid method. Lilac sugar works well for things like meringues but for general use a lilac syrup is the best. When I make mine, I add lemon juice, in order to make it safe for water-bath canning – heavy sugar syrups are safe to can without this, but I prefer syrups on the lighter side and just feel safer adding an acid to prevent botulinum growth. Also, I pretty much always want to add lemon flavors to lilac, so it’s convenient.

I braised a rabbit in a sauce built out of lilac and quatre épices. My braising technique needs work but the sauce was good. This is definitely a set of flavors I’d try again with any lighter meat – poultry, rabbit, maybe pork.

There’s a standard set of things people do with floral syrups – pour it onto ice cream or cake or pancakes, mix it into soda, add pectin for jelly, etc. Substituting lilac for elderflower syrup in a recipe has never done me wrong.

Last but not least, this is one of my staples, and I’m surprised I haven’t published the recipe here before – it is a great fancy brunch cocktail.

Expo 74

This is the only cocktail I’ve made up that I’ve also managed to name well.

  • 1.5 oz Dry Fly gin (or another softer style of gin, like Hendrick’s)
  • 0.5 oz lemon juice
  • 0.5-1 oz lilac syrup, depending on how dry your wine is and how sweet your like your brunch cocktails
  • Sparkling wine

Or leave out the gin for a less inebriating mimosa.

Yarrow Pale Ale II

It’s been, uh, a while since I’ve updated the brewing log. About a year ago I discovered that the yarrow-weizen, which I had thought was ruined but never bothered to throw out, had actually matured into an amazing sour. Not just “yeah it’s pretty good” amazing, but getting double-takes and holy shitballs from hard-to-impress third parties. I have a handful of bottles left, which I now only open for special occasions, because they keep getting better.

Meanwhile, last year’s YPA seems to be headed towards a similarly delicious sour fate, but is still too green to drink.

I don’t know exactly what’s happening here but I’m going to try to keep doing it. Here is this year’s effort. Skipping the dandelion root this time, after a slowly-consumed batch of dandelion brown ale convinced me that its flavor doesn’t age very well.

  • 7lbs golden liquid malt extract
  • 8 oz aromatic malt
  • 7 oz carapils
  • Whirlfloc tablet
  • 1.5 oz mugwort, half added for 60 min and half for 15
  • 0.4 oz (15 min) of what I believe to be Labrador tea but I don’t know which species. It was a gift a few years ago from a survey respondent, who only knew the plant as “Indian tea”. It still smelled nice but I’m sure it’s lost a great deal of potency since it was picked.
  • 6.5 oz yarrow flowers (0 min)
  • 1 qt. starter Northwest Ale

OG: 1.048 @ 78ºF. Wort tastes pretty balanced as-is, a little sweet, herbal.

Other booze updates:

Lilac hooch: Horrid. Bitter, wretched pfaugh. I’ll try opening another bottle next year sometime.

Blackberry wine: Bottled April 12. Drinkable! A bit thin-tasting (I may need to improve my vocabulary if I’m going to keep doing this…).

Osoberry piquette: Also bottled April 12. Really good! Not amazing like the yarrow-weizen, but genuinely enjoyable. Might get better if I can manage to let it sit long enough, but we’ll see – half a gallon doesn’t give me much room for impatience.

Edit, 7/7: I left the YPA in the bedroom closet for quite a while, and it was still making regular blorping noises when I racked to secondary Saturday night. I was bit worried about the effect of the heat wave, but the taste was a really good kind of sour, so it’s probably okay. Gravity 1.01 @ something like 80º. Suuuper hazy, lots of plant crud in the trub. Now it’s in a carboy in the basement, hopefully insulated a bit better from temperature fluctuations.

Forest salt

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It’s about 1/3 salt, 1/3 powdered dried mushrooms (I used a mix of Suillus and Leccinum species), and 1/3 Douglas fir needles. Salt, umami from the mushrooms, and a bit of lemoniness from the fir – great all-purpose flavor boost.

Blackberry wine

It’s time for a catch-up brewing log post.

Two weeks ago I went over to a nearby vacant lot and picked 18 lbs of blackberries (I weighed them on my bathroom scale when I got home). Most of them went into 15 pints of jam; I froze one ice cube tray’s worth of the milled puree, and so far have used half of it for coconut milk ice cream; the runnings of blackberry juice from my larger-than-you-would-ever-choose-if-you-wanted-your-berries-to-come-home-unsmashed collecting jars, and the seeds & stuff left in the food mill after processing the berries for jam, went into the hooch bucket, with enough water to bring it up to a gallon. So did a handful of red oak leaves, for extra tannin. And, uh, probably somewhere around two pounds of sugar, 1/2 tsp pectic enzyme, and some yeast nutrient. OG 1.111 or thereabouts.

I found some nylon mesh fabric in a free pile – it looks like in its first life it was a sheer curtain panel and then someone had cut it up for mysterious craft purposes. So I used a big piece of that to wrap the blackberry pulp before putting it in the fermenter. Old curtains: A+ brewing equipment.

Then last night I wanted to transfer it to a carboy, but I only have one gallon jug and it was occupied by lilac hooch. So I bottled the hooch – including a campden tablet for stability. It’s a nice peachy-pink color, hazy (I only racked it once), and the taste is thin and sour. Here’s hoping it’s drinkable in 6 months.

This was my first time bottling anything with wine corks. My friendly local brewing store found an old wooden hand corker on the back shelf for me – the thing looks like a toy you’d find at a Waldorf school. It SUCKS to put corks in with that thing! The Mister eventually figured out the trick of it but all of the tops of the corks are still smashed all weird. Lesson learned: Pay the extra $20 for a fancy one with lever arms.

Also racked the osoberry piquette, which is *great*. I will be doing a bigger batch next year, with better attention to filtering early in the process.

Last but not least, I’ve been drinking the dandelion mead (which I did end up carbonating). It’s pretty dry and not detectably dandelion-flavored – but it makes a good base for champagne cocktails with a bit of herbal simple syrup.

I’ve also changed day jobs recently – or rather, I quit my day job in favor of full-time freelancing and working on a startup thing. If you have a data mining idea you need help with, let me know! I expect to be pretty busy for the next several months, but my schedule will be much more flexible and I can take short breaks to e.g. tend to a sourdough while I’m working from home. So we’ll see what effect this has on my foraging and blogging.

Osoberry Piquette

Piquette, or pomace wine, is an inferior hooch formed from the skins and other solids left over after pressing grapes for wine. My osoberry pomace was the leftovers after making jam, not wine, but I bet it’ll still make a nice inferior hooch! If not, well, I’m not out much.

I milled about 2.5 quarts of osoberries, dumped the leftover skins and seeds into a bucket, and added 2 quarts of water. I took a hydrometer reading (1.02); then I felt sorry for the yeasts and added 2 cups of table sugar, a pinch of yeast nutrient, and a couple tablespoons of bottled lime juice. Did not take another reading. Stirred ‘er up and dumped in a jar of champagne yeast from the fridge (leftovers from the lilac hooch).

Update, 6/21: Opened it up and there was a thin layer of mold on top, which I think may have been because I used a too-big bucket combined with possibly not enough yeast – usually yeast will produce a protective blanket of CO2 which prevents aerobic organisms from colonizing the top of the brew. I skimmed off the mold, and what was underneath tasted good, if syrupy, so I racked it to a growler. Gravity 1.092. Maybe next time I am tempted to impulse-add arbitrary amounts of sugar I will look up some recipes first to improve my sense of proportion. Poured in a bit more leftover yeast – reinforcements!

Update, 8/31: There was still a steady stream of visible bubbles coming up through the growler, but I was fussing with other wine last night so I decided to rack it anyway. Added a pinch of pectic enzyme, too, for good measure. There were a LOT of solids; I filtered it through some nylon mesh fabric. I am worried about the amount of oxygen that got in during the rather messy transfer – I guess the worst that happens is that I end up with osoberry vinegar.

The wine tastes great though. It has the kinds of fruity flavors you expect out of a nice red table wine, balanced by a little acidity and … well, whatever it is the yeast did to the weird rubbery undertones you can sometimes get in osoberries, it worked.

The Kitchenaid as Thresher: Notes on Micro-Scale Grain Harvest

Last year I brought home an armload of ripe cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and some kinda fescue (Festuca sp.), because I’d never tried foraging grains before. Tom Elpel notes that all grasses are edible with the possible exception of ryegrass (Lolium spp.). Ryegrass has distinctive seed heads with neatly alternating spikelets, so it’s easy to avoid.

Grass seeds are designed to fall off the stalk or be caught by a passing animal when they’re ripe; each seed is wrapped in a little hull with protruding bits called an awn that help them disperse. Take the seed heads home, find an undisturbed corner, and let the seeds fall out onto a sheet while they dry.

This falling out process of course is not neat; you will have a bunch of seeds, and straw, and some seeds will be stuck to the straw still so you have to smash and winnow. I tried putting all of this stuff into an old pillowcase and beating it, which… sort of helped to break the straw down but mostly served to embed bits of straw and grass seeds into the pillowcase. Cheatgrass in particular is very pointy and likes to get stuck in things.

I also tried threshing by spreading the grains onto a cookie sheet and using a rolling pin, and my feet, to separate the grain from the chaff. I manually picked out some of the straw. I ran the stuff in small batches in my little food processor – this worked OK for fescue, but cheatgrass is so long and skinny, and has such long awns, that it just sort of rotated around as a single tangled mass.

Anyway, none of these techniques worked very well, but by the time I’d run out of ideas I had managed to reduce the amount of straw enough that I could put the grass away for a while. Had I been thinking I would probably have cut the straw longer when I harvested, so that I could just grab a handful of grass and flail it around in a box – I don’t expect that to be a very good way of handling cheatgrass awns but it might at least make it easier to separate out most of the straw.

Today I pulled out some of the cheatgrass, spread it on a cookie sheet, and baked it in a low (170F) oven for 90 minutes – a trick I’d read about for oat hulls. It worked! I could rub some of the seeds in my hands and feel the awns and hulls loosening.

I finished threshing with the plain metal beater on my Kitchenaid. It didn’t remove all the hulls, but after half an hour or so, the awns were broken down and the only remaining parts of the hulls were wrapped closely around the grains. Good enough.

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I winnowed in the breeze in my back yard. I know I dropped some seeds. I don’t really worry about transporting seeds the short distance from the bike trail to my lawn, which is already infested with all manner of invasives anyway – but if you’re bringing seeds home from farther away, or you care about the grass mix in your lawn, uh, maybe be careful about the species you choose to harvest. I don’t think there’s any practical way to do this without losing a few.

Finally, I put half a cup of the grain into my rice cooker with two cups of water, and wound up adding another cup when that was gone. It probably wouldn’t’ve hurt to use even more. The grain tastes good, in a vague cereal flavor sort of way, but the remaining hulls give it a rough, scratchy mouthfeel.
Cooked Cheatgrass

I have a flour grinder, so I think that’s what I’ll do with the rest of it. Cheatgrass is high in gluten so maybe I’ll try to bake a mini loaf of bread.

Mugwort mochi

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Someone on Pinterest put up a link to a recipe for yomogi mochi – a Japanese dessert of sweet rice flour flavored with Artemisia princeps powder and filled with red bean paste. Since the traditional species of Artemisia was not conveniently in my cupboard, I tried it with good ol’ Artemisia vulgaris instead.
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Yarrow Pale Ale

Take 2 on a hop-free gruit. Maybe this time (unlike the last batch) my sanitation will succeed; the mugwort and extra dandelion root should help.

  • 7 lbs liquid light malt extract
  • 8 oz aromatic malt
  • 6 oz carapils
  • 3 oz dried dandelion roots (60 min)
  • 1 oz mugwort (20 min)
  • whirlfloc tablet (20 min)
  • 1/4 oz licorice root (15 min)
  • 1/4 oz mugwort (10 min)
  • 5 oz dried yarrow flowers (5 min)
  • 1 qt starter of Thames Valley ale yeast (Wyeast 1275)

OG: 1.054. Wort tastes sweet but balanced.

In other brewing updates: I forgot to blog about the mugwort rye lager I made over the winter. The mugwort part was 2 oz. added on impulse; also I got lazy and never racked to secondary. The final beer is good but tastes… messy, I guess, where you expect a lager to be clean. And very mugwort dominant. Still, pretty good.

I also made a gallon of lilac hooch last weekend following recipe #1 here, with a big handful of dried blackberry leaves added in hopes of a little tannin. I racked it today. My lilacs are a very pale purple but the wine is currently bubblegum pink. The must tasted like delicious lilac lemonade at the beginning, and now it tastes like some horrible flavor of Four Loco. I didn’t bother with an initial hydrometer measurement.

Update, 6/8: Bottled the YPA yesterday. It was good, but on the sour side, which is worrisome. FG 1.018 (~4.7% ABV).

Desert Parsley

I went looking for morels last weekend and didn’t find any. But as a consolation prize, I learned a new plant:

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Lomatium nudicaule – barestem biscuitroot, barestem desert-parsley, Indian consumption plant, pestle parsnip, wild celery. I have never actually heard any of these common names in common use; I think I’m gonna call it desert parsley to match the way I’m starting to think of this plant in the kitchen.

The fresh leaves at this stage taste a bit like a celery-flavored cough drop – there’s that carrot family flavor, but it’s almost completely overwhelmed by a minty medicinal flavor, not quite eucalyptol but in that vein. Googling up some analyses of the volatile oils from various other Lomatium species just shows a mix of the usual terpenoid suspects common to many plant families. Anyway, from the taste it’s quite obvious why people use it for respiratory ailments.

I took a bit home thinking it might be interesting in soup or with lamb, and then let it dry out in the fridge instead of using it. I think I like it better dried than fresh – the mintiness goes away and it just tastes like a strong parsley or celery leaf.

Traditional food uses focus on younger greens than I was picking, or on the young taproot.

See also: Writeups from herbalists Kahlee Keane and Ryan Drum.