Salted Spruce Tips and Pine Infused Garlic Salt

spruce and salt 1

I’ve been really enjoying homemade seasoned salt lately, especially herb and conifer salts, but also just plain old garlic salt. For me, garlic salt sort of snuck under my DIY radar. If a recipe calls for garlic salt, you reach for the beige stuff in the jar, right? Well, no, actually, it turns out you can make it yourself in two minutes. I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out.

All you have to do is chop any aromatic, like garlic or herbs or citrus zest, into salt, mincing it with a big kitchen knife until it reaches a texture you like. That might be very fine, or a little rough. You could do this more quickly in a food processor. I use kosher salt for this, you could use a fancier salt if you like.

When you’re done, you spread the salt on a plate and leave it out to dry for a day or two. The salt really accelerates the dry time. Then transfer it to a jar. That’s all there is to it.

The only decisions to make are which aromatics you’re going to try–I’ll give some suggestions below–and what your salt to aromatic ratio is going to be.  I can’t give you an exact recipe–it’s something you’ve got to feel out for yourself, knowing all the while that whatever you make will be okay.

Many herb salt recipes suggest equal parts herb and salt, but I often use much less salt than that. The question you must ask is whether you want your end product to be salt which is lightly flavored, or flavor chunks of some aromatic which are enhanced by salt–that is to say, herbed salt or salted herb?

The best approach is to simply start with less salt and see how it goes, because you can always add more.

paw salt

Feline assistance in making the pine garlic salt.

A Tale of Two Salts

To give you some concrete examples, I made two small batches of salt today. I often make herbed salt in tiny batches that get used up quickly, because I like to experiment.

The first one I made was with spruce tips. These are the fresh spring growth of a fir tree, the tender chartreuse tips which stand out in such brilliant contrast to the tree’s older foliage. They have a subtle citrus-pine flavor. I only had a handful to work with–I’d like to get more if I can get up to the mountains again soon.

I felt like the spruce was the real star of this blend. I didn’t want its subtle flavor overwhelmed by salt, so I used very little salt.

I also had a bit of pine to work with. I’d been in the mountains for the day, and had been nibbling on every pine I saw, like a lunatic. [See the end for an obligatory safety warning.]

There is surprising flavor variation among conifers, even between trees of the same type growing right next to one another. Moreover, the flavor of a particular tree will fluctuate over the course of the year. If you’re looking for edible pine, you just have to taste test until you find something nice. Most of the pines I found on this outing were really dry despite the season–thank you, drought– and tasted bland or unpleasant. I found one tree which had a decent flavor, and brought home a single cluster of needles.

In this case, I decided the pine flavor was not interesting enough to be the star of the recipe, but I thought it would add a nice twist for garlic salt.

Most herbs, including the soft spruce tips, will sort of blend and mash into the salt, creating a uniform, sandy texture. Pine needles are too tough for that, so the best you can do with them is to chop them into very fine pieces then mix them into the salt. They will infuse the salt with flavor as they sit in it, but will always remain distinct, and if the pieces are too big, it can be unpleasant.

After I minced the needles, I minced some garlic into the salt as well. Chop the garlic about as fine as your patience lasts, keeping in mind that it shrinks when it dehydrates, so it doesn’t have to be super-fine to start.

You can see in these pictures that the garlic/pine salt is much whiter, i.e. much more salt heavy. The spruce tips, meanwhile, are all about the green.

two salts

Pine and garlic on the left,  spruce tip on the right

Other Herbed Salt Ideas

Get creative. You can chop almost anything you like into salt:

• Herbs of all types–dill, sage, parsley, basil, etc. You can recreate classic herb combos, like Herbs de Provence.  

• I haven’t made onion or shallot salt yet, but am wondering why I haven’t.

• Straight garlic salt is easy and useful

• Citrus zest is lovely with salt

• A nice fresh spicy red pepper would make an interesting salt

• Various combinations of the above seem suggestive: citrus and hot pepper, onion and parsley, etc.

• Lavender salt can be really nice if used sparingly on sweets, like caramel or shortbread or chocolate

• Stinging nettles don’t taste like much, but they have lots of nutritional value. Make a healthy green salt with fresh or dry nettles (For fresh, use a food processor, or wear gloves as you chop! The stingers will fade when the plant dries out.)

• Seaweed salt. Add some sesame seeds for furikake-like flavor

• My favorite salt so far has been piñon pine with garlic. I need me some more piñon!

What do you do with it?

Herbed salts are nice on vegetables and popcorn. They can add that extra oomph to soups and stews. They can be used as meat rubs. They can be kept at table and sprinkled on everything.

Regarding pine toxicity

There was a single study that showed that eating Ponderosa pine tips caused miscarriages in cattle, and if the cattle ate huge amounts of Ponderosa pine, they suffered other illnesses. This gets waved around and scares people from eating pine. In contrast to this is a long tradition of humans brewing and drinking pine needle tea in perfect safety. It is my understanding that all true pines (Pinus) are considered edible.

As usual, the answer is all things in moderation. Don’t eat tons of pine. Easily done! It’s not that tasty. And to be absolutely safe, skip pine entirely while you’re pregnant.

In addition, know how to identify two truly toxic trees you might run into, and definitely don’t want to eat: The Australian Pine, also known as Norfolk Pine and the Yew. Neither are actually pines–they’re not members of the Pinus family–but they are sometimes thought of as pines.

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Spam Poetry Sunday

Jan-Brady

In lieu of our usual picture Sunday, we offer instead a beautiful word picture from our friends the spammers. Our software blocks thousands of these every day, but some get through and we have to hand prune our comment sections:

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What mystifies us is the ultimate purpose of these spam comments. This one was placed on our announcement for our upcoming coffee roasting class (not a popular or highly linked post), and linked to a page for a restaurant which is obviously just a place holder, in that it has no content or history or graphic design. And who the heck is Janet?

Going to Seed

radish podsTidiness is a very pleasant thing inside a house. Outside, in a yard or garden, it’s not at all a good thing. I’m really tired of the cult of tidy.

We seem to be confused. We conflate our yards with our living rooms, the space beneath our shrubs for kitchen floors. Popular opinion seems to believe our flower and vegetable gardens should be maintained like trophy rooms, like curio cases.

Our mistake, of course, is thinking that everything is about us. That our yard, our garden, our little patch of land actually belongs to us and we have the right to maintain it exactly as we like. We might own it on paper, but we share it with hundreds, thousands, millions (if you want to get into soil biology) of other lives.

Of course, if we maintain our yards to exact standards of tidiness–say our yard consists of a lawn and some shrubs along the drive with the dirt beneath them blown clean, we probably are not supporting much life at all. We’ve put up the No Trespassing sign, and creatures listen.

front bed seedy 2It gets even more sparse if we spray herbicides and pesticides all over the place. All of the invisible life vanishes. Any creatures which visit are just passing through.

The land is eerily silent.

But life is waiting to come back. That is what is so amazing. It jumps back if given even half a chance. If you open the door just a crack.

All we have to do is sit back and relax.

Stop with the obsessive yard work.

Stop paying the yard crew.

Stop spraying chemicals around.

Just stop.

Leave the leaves. Let fallen leaves and pulled weeds stay on the land to protect and nourish the soil.

Let volunteers bloom.

Let your garden go to seed.

mustard seedyIf we live with fussy neighbors, or under the impression that our gardens should look like the ones in the magazines, we might work hard to keep our vegetable and flower gardens impeccable, starting seedlings in advance to replace aging plants so there’s never any sense of “decline” in the garden.

I’ve always let parts of our garden go to seed, but this year, more than ever, I’m attuned to it. I’m reveling in the beauty in it, and I’m understand the generosity of it down deep, on the soul level.

lettuce bloomingIn the past I struggled to leave the plants as long as I could stand it, knowing they were doing good in their later life cycle, but also feeling like my yellow, straggly garden made me look lazy or incompetent.

I was also acutely aware of the long gaps between harvests that would occur if I waited for plants to go to seed before replacing them. Now, I’ve given up all that anxiety, and I revel in this time.

The insects feast on the flowers which bloom on our lettuce, our arugula, our radishes, our mustard, our fennel. Predatory wasps hunt alongside lady bugs and diligent bees of all types.

argula flowerWe have more birds than ever in our yard, and they love our overgrown, browning beds, because of course they’re eating the seeds or the bugs on the ripening plants. They would not, however, allow me to take any pictures of them doing these things.

They love all the weedy places, the vacant lots and over grown side yards. Those places are full of flashing wings and trilling songs. It’s already a seed time of year here in LA on our fast moving calendar, and I’m watching the birds feast. I love watching the little finches balancing on thin, swaying plant stalks in the golden light of the afternoon. The world is full of moments of perfect, unconscious beauty like that.

Once the seeds are eaten, and the plants are brown and empty, I cut the stalks down at their base, but I don’t throw anything away. Everything stays in the yard, on or in the ground. The plant which fed us and the bee and the finch will now finish its work feeding the soil. Feeding the soil is its deepest work.

And–never worry!– some seed always manages to hit the ground despite all the competition, ensuring volunteers will come up next year, and feed us all again.

radish pods 2An aside:

One area where I have to admit that I am less than generous is in the matter of radish seed pods. These I don’t leave for the birds, because I like them so much.

Most of you gardeners are probably very familiar with radish seed pods. If you aren’t, they are the fat little pods that show up after a radish plant of any type goes to seed.

They taste like radishes, pretty much, sometimes they’re sweeter, sometimes they’re spicier. Radish pods are both a bonus crop and a fine consolation prize, because even if your radish roots end up puny or woody or otherwise disappointing, you can always eat the pods. They’re best fresh, picked a handful at a time as a snack or to put in a salad, but you can lactoferment or pickle them, too, using pretty much any pickle recipe you prefer.

Waxed Cloth Food Wrap (Made in a solar oven for bonus self-righteousness points)

peanut clothReuseable food wrap made with wax infused cloth is a thing. DIY instructions for it are all over the web. It sort of had its moment in the sustainable limelight a few years ago, so I know this post is not offering anything new for the jaded sustainable DIYer.

But I wanted to tell you that I’ve finally made a couple of pieces to test out, and I like them. If you’ve been using waxed cloth, let us know what you think of it.

The factor which finally spurred me into action on this project was our Solavore Sport solar oven. It seemed like the perfect vehicle for this project, and proved to be so–in most ways. Read on.

In case you missed the craze, these food wraps are simply beeswax infused cotton cloth. Their purpose is to help replace plastic wrap and baggies to some extent. They can also be molded over bowls as a light cover–not an air tight cover, but are likely as effective as laying a plate over the bowl. Waxed cloth can also be fashioned into envelopes to carry snacks.

They can be used over and over, and re-waxed. They can also be washed with cold water and soap.

Food wrapped in wax cloth will dry out more quickly than it would in plastic, and it’s not watertight, so it’s not good for drippy/juicy things. Also, it’s not recommended for wrapping meat, because it can’t be cleaned with hot water. But it works very well for wrapping things like cheese and sandwiches, cookies, nuts, carrot sticks, etc.

In my testing so far I’ve settled on using my cloths as snack carriers, using them to wrap up trail mix or carrots or chunks of cheese to put in my day pack, and I like them very much for this. I’ve not tried them for long-term cheese storage in the fridge yet, because the two I made have been constantly at work in the field. Time to make, more, I suppose!

Though I’ve experimented with using them as bowl covers, I doubt that I will use them for this purpose, as I have plenty of glass bowls with fitted covers, so I don’t need covers often. When I do, I’ve found the classic “balance a plate on the bowl” technique remains more convenient– but it’s worth giving the wrap a try. It is not breakable, so that may be a plus if you’ve got kids rooting around in your fridge.

peanut cloth 2

This is the peanut pack from above, folded for carrying. A more formal sewn envelope might be a touch more convenient, but you can do without, because the wax sort of sticks to itself when folded like this. It holds well enough to jounce around in the pocket of your bag for a day. I’ve not had a spill so far, but you could tie it up with string or a rubber band for extra security.

Professional Secrets

There are at least two companies making and selling these wraps now, and both use not only beeswax to infuse the cloth, but also pine resin and jojoba oil to make a fancier product.

I’m not sure what benefits may come from these extra ingredients–the pine resin may add some antibacterial action to the wax, but I don’t know it it would actually make any difference in terms of food safety. The jojoba is more mysterious. I wonder if it improves the texture?

You could probably replicate this proprietary blend by melting smallish quantities of pine sap, soft or hard, into hot beeswax over a double boiler, then stir in some jojoba. The resulting mix can be grated after it cools. Just be sure to cook this up in a jar you’re prepared to throw away, because the pine sap will never come off.

bowl

When covering a bowl, crimp the edges of the cloth around the edge as you’d crimp a pie crust. If you were really ambitious you could sew in an elastic band to hold the cover tight.

How-To

Making the cloths is very easy. All you have to do is cut some squares or circles of thin cotton fabric, like muslin. Pink the edges if you have pinking shears–this looks better, but I don’t think the edges will unravel much anyway, because of the wax.

Size depends on intended use. I can imagine eventually having a range of sizes and shapes. For instance, I’m imagining that a really large one might work nicely for rolling out and refrigerating cookie and pastry dough.

To begin, though, I’d recommend making just one or two. Test them and see if you like them and how you’ll use them before going into production whole hog. 12″ (30cm) square might be a good starting point.

Lay the cloth on a cookie sheet protected with foil or parchment and sprinkle the surface evenly with grated wax or wax pellets. You don’t need a ton of wax. You want to saturate the cloth, but you don’t want to use so much that the coating becomes thick and flaky. I used about 1 tablespoon of wax pellets for cloths about 11 inches square, just to give you an idea.

Place the cookie sheet in an oven set between 150F/64C and 185F/85C for about 10 minutes, just until the wax melts.

Safety note: Keep the oven low–don’t be tempted to use a hot oven for speed, because the wax could discolor at higher temperatures, or even burst into flame if the oven reaches 400F/204C.

Take the sheet out and check for coverage.

My experiments had pretty even coverage without any coaxing, because the hot wax wicks through the cloth. But if it looks spotty, you can spread the melted wax over the cloth with a silicone pastry brush or a dedicated paintbrush.

I specify a silicone pastry brush because the wax will come of the silicone brush– I used ours, so I can testify to this fact–but wax will never come off a regular bristle brush. However, if you use an inexpensive brush, you can keep that brush and use it again and again for waxing purposes by simply warming it until the bristles soften. For this reason you’d want to choose a brush with a wooden handle. Hardware stores sell cheap wooden paint brushes with natural bristles which would work perfectly for this purpose.

While the wax is still warm, hang the cloth up on a line to dry and cool. You’ll also need clothes pins or binder clips to secure the cloth.

The only things to remember are as follows:

  1. Less wax is better than more. If you use too much, your cloth might flake or be otherwise strange.
  2. Wax cools super fast, so if you’re working with the newly waxed cloth, be quick like a bunny. Instagram later! If your cloth cools before you finish, you can put it back in the oven and rewarm it.
  3. On the same note, you have to take the cloth off the cookie sheet the moment you remove it from the heat or it will bond to the sheet when it cools–and that happens fast. If it sticks, just put back in the oven.
  4. Have the drying line set up before you start. You’ll want to hang the hot cloths up right away to cool and dry, not be searching for somewhere to put them while they harden into odd shapes in your hand.

I don’t have many good pictures of the process, so for further research I’m directing you over to Mommypotomus for more details. She also has a cute plan for a snack bag that I might make.

Consider repurposing old textiles

I’m using some of my grandmother’s hankies for this project. I knew there was a reason I kept them around for so long! Take that, Kon Marie!

As I type this, I realize that sounds gross. Be assured, these hankies never saw service. In the 60’s (or earlier ?) people apparently sent one another novelty hankies that came folded inside matching greeting cards. Maybe these were the equivalent of our musical cards, a way to upscale a greeting card ? My grandma had several of these tucked in her bureau.

I claimed her nice linen handkerchiefs for my nose (I never saw her use one, despite having piles of them–she liked those little Kleenex packs), but these novelty hankies, made out of cheap printed cotton, are perfect for food wraps. The cloth covering the bowl in the photos is one of those.

These hankies are particularly nice because they have a finished edge, but this project is also perfect for making use of other textiles you might feel wasteful for throwing out, like old top sheets or a dress shirt with one unfortunate stain or fabric scraps from sewing projects.

Solar Oven Specifics

Beeswax melts at just below 150F/64C. It can discolor if heated above 185F/85C. Its flashpoint is 400F/204.4C.

While many home ovens can be set to 150F, my home oven is really primitive, it doesn’t have a pilot light and it doesn’t cook below 200F. I could fuss with it, prop the door open or whatnot to get lower temperatures, but I never wanted waxed cloths enough to bother with it.

But now that we have this Solavore Sport to play with, I realized I could achieve these lower baking temperatures easily, and simultaneously reach a new pitch of self-righteousness.

Regular cookie sheets don’t fit in the Sport, so I cobbled together a cooking tray out of a shallow cardboard box (a canned cat food case) lined with foil. It barely fit in the oven. It doesn’t even sit on the floor, in fact, but balances above, because the sides of the oven are wedge shaped. Hard to explain, but this should make sense to someone with a Sport.

Back in March, when we got the oven, it peaked around 150F if it didn’t have clips on the lid to seal in the heat–which would be perfect for this project. Now, with the sun higher, it rockets up past 200F pretty quickly even without the clips.

So, at this time of year, working at midday, all I had to do was watch the time and temperature to make sure the oven didn’t get too hot.

I put the tray in the oven, closed the lid (no clips, making the heating is less efficient on purpose) and waited about 10-15 minutes. The temp would quickly rise above 150F and the wax would dissolve, then I’d take it out before it got any hotter. Fast and easy!

Again, the reasons you want to keep the temps low is because 1) you might get discolored wax if you let it bake for too long above 185F and 2) in the very unlikely event the oven temp got to 400F, you’d risk the wax bursting into flame.

The only downside of using the Sport for this project is size limitations. The oven floor is wide but narrow, so I can’t make wraps bigger than 11 inches square. The floor is actually only 9 1/2 inches deep. By wedging the cat food box higher in the oven, off the floor, I was able to fudge things enough to make an 11 inch waxed cloth, but that’s the limit.

I may be able to fold a cloth in half for coating, perhaps layering the wax between the two halves. This is something I’ll play with if I decide to make more.

What’s next for the solar oven?

My next crafty project with the sun oven is going to be infusing oil with herbs, and perhaps drying herbs as well.

And for those of you who were following our solar cooking initiative, it has been on hiatus because our weather this May was dominated by a heavy marine layer which kept the skies overcast until mid-afternoon. I love this weather, personally, but it has put a wrench in the cooking experiments.

June, however, is coming in hot and bright. Usually June in LA is characterized by these same overcast conditions–we call it “June Gloom”– but I’m thinking the gloom came early this year and may be over. So look forward to more cooking posts soon!