Guard owl and green harissa

Guard owl

It is the nature of gardening that after you have solved one problem the next challenge already lurks around the corner. After we moved the elderberry patch to a new location with moister soil last fall, the bushes are thriving. They developed many blossoms, albeit unusually late in the season, and some of them are still flowering.

ElderberriesThe birds would be just as happy about the elderberries as I am so the next question was how to protect them. We looked into bird netting and quickly dismissed the idea as too involved and too expensive. Then I remembered the plastic owl we had not used in years. So up on a tall stick it went. To give it more weight and make it sway more in the wind, my husband filled it with insulation foam.

If the birds won’t get used to the sight of the owl by the time the elderberries ripen, I am slightly optimistic that we will have elderberries this year!

Green bell peppers are an unwanted by-product from my garden. I do not like them and they only land in my kitchen when a stem breaks off, or when I harvest all of them before the first frost, regardless of their color. I have not been very successful in ripening peppers in a brown paper bag or cardboard box; they always soften before turning orange or red.

Yes, I do not like green bell peppers but that does not mean I would ever dump them on the compost. I usually freeze them, hoping that I will eventually find a recipe that uses lots of green peppers. The only recipe I make on a regular basis is Black Bean Soup with Cilantro, however that is only one green pepper down. I have looked for recipes using lots of green peppers but they always ask for so many other ingredients I do not have at hand that making those recipes would defeat the purpose.

Cleaning out the freezer the other day left me with two large bags of green peppers from last year. They had to go, with minimum effort and other ingredients. I decided to try my hands on some sort of mild harissa, hoping for a miraculous green pepper metamorphosis. Worst thing that could happen would be to throw them out after all.

A few hours later I had three jars of a smooth tasty olive-green spread for sandwiches or crackers. A generous amount of ground coriander and caraway gives it a distinct “Tunisian” flavor. And I was able to use up some leftover jalapeños in the process, too!

Green harissa

I am not sure my late Tunisian grandmother would call this a harissa but she was a recycler herself so she would understand.

Green Harissa

2.5 pounds cored and seeded green bell peppers

12 garlic cloves, chopped

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

5 cored and seeded jalapeños, to taste

1 teaspoon chili powder

2 teaspoons salt

½ cup olive oil, more for covering

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Place all ingredients in a large cast-iron Dutch oven. Cook in the preheated oven for 2 to 3 hours until the liquid has been absorbed and the peppers are mushy, turning once in a while at the beginning, and more often towards the end.

3. Puree in the food processor or with a stick blender. Fill into sterilized jars with screw-top lids and pour a bit of olive oil on top. Keep refrigerated and use within 2 to 3 weeks.

Makes 2 to 3 medium jars

Fighting a cold, locavore style

Elderflower tea

For the past three days I have been knocked out with a cold. Between feeling sorry for myself over cancelled weekend plans, and watching the entire first season of the US remake of the Danish crime drama The Killing (great program, by the way), I remembered that I had dried some elderberry blossoms for tea last May.

Elderflower tea is an old home remedy against common cold and fever. The formulas vary. I used 1 heaping teaspoon of dried elderberry flowers per cup boiling water, steeped it for 10 minutes, and sweetened with local honey from our neighbor. In grey chilly January weather, sipping the hot tea from blossoms collected on a beautiful sunny day already feels good.

Hot elderberry juice with lemon juice and honey is also an excellent cold remedy but I don’t have any elderberry juice this year, and can only hope that the elderberry bushes transplanted last fall will love their new, less wind-beaten location in moister soil and produce lots of berries in the future.

Gooseberries: Delicious but vicious

There is no other way to say it: growing gooseberries is a pain. The bushes with their long thorns are outright dangerous. Wearing sturdy gloves when picking the small berries is not really an option so harvesting them often leaves me with deep scratches on my hands and lower arms. My husband still has a few scars on his calves from the time when he moved a row of raspberries nearby and the gooseberry thorns pierced through his jeans. Also, removing the minuscule blossom ends and stems takes forever but it has to be done, otherwise the pie, compote or whatever you make tastes grainy.

Wouldn’t you know it that of my three gooseberry bushes, the cultivar with the largest berries and the easiest to pick, Invicta, yielded exactly four (4) gooseberries this year. Meanwhile the other two cultivars, Hinnonmaki Red and Pixwell, are filled with tiny berries. They are tastier than the hairy Invictas so that’s at least one trade-off for being more labor-intensive.

Initially I was leaning towards tossing the entire 3½ pounds of gooseberries without any tedious preparation into the steam juicer to make gooseberry jelly. But then my culinary curiosity took over and I wanted to try something new, special, and hopefully delicious.

I have always wanted to make gooseberry chutney. When I saw that the recipe for Gooseberry Relish by food writer Edward Schneider in the The New York Times is made with only five ingredients, including elderflower cordial, I had found my inspiration. What a perfect reason to pop open the first bottle of my elderflower syrup!

For a moment I was slightly concerned about the relish being suitable for canning, as the recipe does not mention this option. After all, I want us to savor the relish in the winter and not now, in the midst of fruit cornucopia. But after consulting with my dietitian friend, I was reassured that the gooseberries contain enough acidity to make canning safe.

The other recipe I tried was Gooseberry Chutney, to which I added elderflower vinegar.

I have barely started to harvest from the third gooseberry bush. Soon I will be out there again picking, wincing each time I hit a thorn. But the fact that I can just walk into the garden, while other people hungry for gooseberries hunt them down at farmers’ markets, makes me appreciate more what I have. Also, with the taste of that delicious gooseberry relish and chutney still lingering on my tongue, I know again what I’m doing this for.

Gooseberry Relish

1 large piece of ginger (3 to 4 inches)

2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds

2 pounds gooseberries, blossom ends and stems removed, washed

2/3 cup sugar

1 cup elderflower syrup

1-2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1. Peel the ginger, cut it in half lengthwise and slice it thinly. Tie it into a piece of cheesecloth, together with the mustard seeds, and secure the bag with butcher twine.

2. Place the bag in a heavy saucepan with the gooseberries, the sugar and the elderflower syrup. Stir to mix and slowly bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for about 1 hour, until the relish thickens. Stir every now and then, more often as it thickens, to prevent the relish from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Towards the end, check for sweetness and add brown sugar to taste.

3. Discard the ginger bag. Fill the piping hot relish in sterilized jars placed on a damp kitchen towel. Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp piece of paper towel to remove any drips. Place the lids and the bands on the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

4. Let cool and set for 24 hours without moving the jars.

Makes 2 to 3 half-pint jars

Gooseberry Chutney

1 medium piece of ginger (1 inch), peeled and chopped

1.5 pounds gooseberries, blossom ends and stems removed, washed

1 medium yellow onion, sliced thinly

2 garlic cloves, crushed

3 fresh thyme twigs, leaves only

3 marjoram twigs, leaves only

1.5 cups sugar

1 cup elderflower vinegar

½ teaspoon yellow mustard seeds

½ teaspoon salt

1. Put all the ingredients in a heavy saucepan. Stir to mix and slowly bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the chutney thickens. Stir every now and then, especially towards the end, so it won’t scorch.

2. Process in boiling water batch as described in the Gooseberry Relish recipe above.

Makes 2 to 3 half-pint jars

Elderflower feast


When we drove up north to the Hudson Valley yesterday, the edge of the woods along the highway was lined with shrubs that looked like elderberries in full bloom. I could barely sit still in my seat. Last spring was the first time I took a few handfuls of elderflowers from my plants to make elderflower jelly. It is delicious but I am not sure I will dare to do that again, as the yield of those shrubs is so modest to begin with.

Here were enough elderflowers to try all the elderflower recipes in the world, and then some! Once we reached our destination, I quickly excused myself and, equipped with a plastic bag and a knife, strolled into the meadows behind the house. I did not have to walk far before I found a big elderberry bush in full bloom.

On the way home, I started to wonder. The leaves looked slightly different from the cultivated elderberries I have in the garden… I’d better do some research before processing my botanical booty.

Of all the areas of gardening, I find plant identification with plant identification keys the hardest, and I usually take the easiest way out by just comparing photos. Yet this time I had to dig a bit deeper. I was glad I brought home a twig with a full set of leaves, in addition to the flowers.

I needed to make sure it was American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and not Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), which is unfit for consumption and whose berries are toxic. The flowers and fully ripened berries of the American Elderberry are edible (its other parts are indeed poisonous). From the USDA database and other reliable sources I learned that the smell of crushed red elderberry leaves is strong and unpleasant, the twigs are pithy with raised pores, and the flowers are conical, pyramidal clusters. What I had picked was American Elderberry. Also, it reassured me that on local Hudson Valley websites and blogs people were raving about the abundance of wild American Elderberry in the area.

So I was safe and happily went to work, making a large batch of elderberry syrup and elderberry vinegar. The rest of the elderflowers are drying on a tray lined with paper towels to make herbal tea against cold and fever.


Elderflower Vinegar

Some recipes require soaking the flowers in salt water, I suppose to get rid of any insects. Although this removes some of the pollen, for vinegar this makes sense to me because unlike syrup and jelly, it is not boiled afterwards.

1 tablespoon salt

1½ cups packed elderflower blossoms, all stems and leaves removed

3 cups (750 ml) white vinegar

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons (75 g) sugar

¾ cup (190 ml) white wine

1. Fill a large bowl with cold tap water. Holding each umbel by the stem, gently move it around in the water. Exchange the water as necessary.

2. When the water is clear, add the salt to the water and stir to dilute. The blossoms should be fully immersed. Set aside.

3. Bring the vinegar, sugar and wine to a boil and stir until the sugar is fully dissolved.

4. Drain the elderflowers and pat dry with paper towels. Place in a 1-quart sterilized jar with a lid and pour the hot vinegar mix over it. Cover and let sit in a dark place at moderate room temperature for 2 weeks. Strain twice through a sieve lined with several layers of cheesecloth. Fill in sterilized bottles.

Makes 1 quart/1 liter


Photo by Ted Rosen

After-the-storm elderberry sauce

After a power outage for two and-a-half days due to hurricane Irene, and the emergency evacuation of our freezer chest, filled almost to the top with produce from the garden, to friends who did not lose power, I had only limited energy left for lengthy food rescue operations.

The storm had knocked down several handfuls of elderberry clusters. Elderberries ripen unevenly so I usually leave them on the plant until all the berries are black, hoping I am quicker than the birds. The elderberry clusters I collected still had some green berries on them but that’s all right.

I have never made anything else than elderberry soup or jelly from elderberries. There were not enough storm berries for any of those but I know from Elderberry Soup that elderberries and apples are a good combination. So I made this easy after-the-storm elderberry sauce with apples. I had it with Greek yogurt but I can imagine it also delicious on cottage cheese, rice pudding, with waffles or pancakes.

Let’s hope we won’t have another storm like this in a long time but if we ever do, I will try the sauce with pears, which also complement elderberries very well.

Elderberry Sauce with Apples 

2 Gala apples

2.5 cups stemmed and washed elderberries

1 cinnamon stick

1 strip of organic lemon peel

½ cup sugar, to taste

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1. Peel and quarter the apples. Remove the core and cut the apples into ½-inch dice. Put them in a heavy saucepan with the elderberries, the cinnamon, lemon peel and sugar. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons water to prevent burning before the elderberries release their juice.

2. Bring to a boil and cook, covered, 15 minutes, until the apples are very tender and the berries are easily crushed with a spoon. Stir occasionally during cooking.

3. Cool slightly and remove the lemon peel and cinnamon stick. Pass through the finest plate of the food processor. Scrape the underside of the plate – a lot of the thick pulp gets stuck there.

4. Return the sauce to the pot. Dissolve the cornstarch in 2 tablespoons cold water and add it to sauce. Stirring constantly, bring the sauce to the boil and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, until it thickens and looks no longer starchy. Taste for sugar. Let cool and refrigerate.

Makes about 1 cup

Are you jellin’?

When I first moved to the United States, I loaded up on all types of baking and cooking ingredients on each visit to my native Germany. Meanwhile I have found decent substitutes for most items, except one: jelling sugar.

In Germany, jelling sugar comes in three variations of fruit-to-sugar ratio, depending on the sweetness of the fruit and personal taste: 1:1, 2:1 and 3:1. It’s a natural product, made from pectin in apples and citrus fruit. And, it comes ready-mixed, or as a jelling powder concentrate to which you add sugar (lightweight and therefore perfect for airline travel). Some online stores specializing in German foods have it but when I inquired at Dr. Oetker USA, I was told they don’t carry it. Too bad, because there is really nothing like it in the US. Many American recipes call for twice as much sugar as fruit.

So don’t hesitate if you can get your hands on imported jelling sugar. Alternatively, you can use pectin products for less sugar or no sugar recipes, to obtain an jam or jelly that actually tastes like the fruit, not just sugary.

This was the first year I had enough blossoms on my elderberry bushes to dare snipping some off for elderflower jelly. The heavenly scent alone is worth making it. In the past few days I have spotted wild elderberry blooming along the roadside. As long as it’s not in a polluted area, and the plants have not been sprayed with any pesticides, you can use those. To make sure you are really harvesting elderflowers, check out some elderberry images, for example on the website of the Missouri Botanical Garden, which has an excellent plant database.

I might go forage elderflowers myself to try some other elderflower recipes.

Elderflower Jelly

8 cups clear apple juice without artificial coloring or additional sugar

15 to 20 elderberry flowerheads

1 package fruit pectin for less or no sugar recipes

4 cups sugar

You also need:

A canning pot, or a very large stockpot

10 half-pint canning jars

8 bands

8 new (unused) lids

1. Shake the elderflowers to remove any bugs. Remove all the stems.

2. Immerse the flowers in a large bowl filled with cold water. Swish around and place in a colander. Repeat this process once or twice. If there are still tiny insects on the flowers, don’t worry. The juice will be strained and cooked.

3. Place the flowers in a large plastic container with a lid. Pour the apple juice over it. Push down; the flowers should be fully immersed in juice. Cover and refrigerate for 48 hours.

4. Pour the liquid through a fine sieve. Repeat the process. You may also line the sieve with a piece of damp cheesecloth if you are really worried about bugs.

5. Follow the package directions for your pectin product. When the mixture boils, remove any foam with a ladle or a large spoon.

7. Pour the hot jelly in sterilized jars through a canning funnel. Wipe the rim with a damp piece of paper towel to remove any drips and wipe dry with paper towel. Place the lids and the bands on the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

9. Let cool and set for 24 hours without moving the jars. If processed properly, the jelly will keep for 1 year or more.

Makes 10 half-pint jars

Vitamin booster

In the past few days, each time I walked down to the garden, the sight of the elderberry bushes bending under the weight of the dark, shiny fruit has jumped at me. Elderberries are usually one of the latest berries to ripen but this year everything is a few weeks early. I hope the elderberries are as ripe as they look because I want them now! I have a cold and elderberries are packed with vitamin C.

Elderberries are rarely grown in the US (despite American elderberries being native shrubs) and hard to find, that’s why I planted several bushes, mainly to satisfy my cravings for my grandmother’s elderberry soup (the recipe can be found in my cookbook Spoonfuls of Germany).

If I could do it all over again, I would plant the elderberries in a different location, not on the wind-battered hillside where the soil gets extremely dry. Elderberries prefer moist soil and thrive near a brook or a pond. At this point the bushes are too big to move so in dry weather they need a good soaking every now and then.

Extracting the juice from the elderberries was cumbersome until I bought a steam juicer last year. It is the #1 equipment I would recommend to everyone who processes larger amounts of berries of all types, not only elderberries. I am so happy with my acquisition, and have shown the steam juicer to so many visitors, that my husband starts rolling his eyes when I head to the pantry to make yet another demonstration.

I can the elderberry juice with sugar (¼ cup sugar for 4 cups juice) in 1-quart canning jars and process them 20 minutes in a hot water bath.