elderberry syrup

I finally got around to doing a little research on elderberries. I often see the shrubs growing here in Los Angeles and also all along Highway 101 when I drive up to the Central Coast. I recognized the creamy white blooms, which grow in little umbels, and had tasted elderflower syrups, but never anything made from the berries.

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I learned that in Southern California we have the Sambucus mexicana and Sambucus caerula (or blue elder) varieties. They have long been important plants to indigenous people, a prime food source for birds, and excellent pollinator attractors. The blue elder is distinguishable in part by the glaucous coating on the berries. This appears as a greyish-white bloom that gives the berries a pale blue appearance yet wipes off with a little friction. Now that I recognize them, I seem to see them everywhere!

In certain parts of Europe, the elder tree has been associated with witches and fairies. Lore has it that one should ask permission from the “elder mother” before taking any wood from the tree so as not to suffer her wrath! She seems especially keen on pulling the legs of babies and small children while they sleep. Yikes!

IMG_8157.JPGThe elderberries themselves are commonly used in syrups for cold and flu season. They are packed with vitamin C, A and antioxidants. However, if preparing your own elderberry concoctions do so carefully as the leaves, stems and unripe berries are toxic!! Make sure to identify the elderberry properly before jumping into any recipes. I found that many of the recipes for elderberry syrup are flavored with ginger, cinnamon and clove and sweetened with honey. This lends a pleasant warming quality to the syrup and makes for a tasty flavor combination. I followed the recipes found on Wellness Mama and Mountain Rose Herbs. I was not able to get a true syrup thickness with these recipes, however. The finished product was fairly liquidy, but delicious nonetheless! I tried a second go-around letting the liquid simmer for longer uncovered, thinking maybe that would help it reduce. But that seemed to just result in more evaporation. Perhaps if I had added the honey and then reduced? I’d like to find a recipe that will get me a really nice thick syrup, but for now this works just fine. If anyone has found a truly syrup-y recipe, please let me know!

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The syrup can be taken as a supplement or just used for flavorful addition to a variety of dishes. I added some drizzles of it to yogurt with blackberries and it was divine. My friend says she eats hers on ice cream! It’s also a nice addition to sparkling water. I’m also curious about the British “pontack” sauce, which combines elderberries with shallots, vinegar, sugar and spices to create a “ketchup” popular in the 17th century and typically used to season game. Perhaps I’ll give this one a try sometime!

 

so passiflora

IMG_7922Is there anything more sumptuously psychedelic than the passion fruit? The blooms are otherworldly and hypnotic; the fruit an elusive blend of tangy, pungent and sweet. The leaves, stems and flowers of certain varieties are used in herbal medicine for their calming properties, and it’s also rumored to be an aphrodisiac…need I say more?

I recently attended a fascinating presentation on passion fruit by Jorge Ochoa, director of the Horticulture Program at Long Beach City College, and hosted by the Los Angeles chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers. Jorge, a self-described “fruit monkey,” walked us through some of the many varieties of passion fruit, providing us with helpful tips on which ones have the best flavor and how to grow them here in Southern California. Here is what I learned.

Passion fruit are native to South America and in the late 19th and early 20th century their cultivation became popular in Australia and Hawaii.  The name derives from the custom of Spanish missionaries referring to the flowers as “Flor de las cinco lagas” or flower of the five wounds (of Christ fame) and hence – passion – or capacity for suffering. In locales such as Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil and Columbia, they are known to grow rapidly in clearings and along roadways. In Southern California you can find them growing along fences and walls, up trees and in containers. Their intricate flowers are only open for one day(!) and are typically pollinated by our friends the carpenter and bumble bee.

Here, the most common purple skinned variety of passion fruit is known as Passiflora edulis. Once mature, this plant can easily produce over 200 fruits in one season! As for growing them, Jorge stressed that passion fruit are not picky. They can grow in average soil and don’t require extensive care or watering. If starting from seed, it’s best NOT to buy them online and instead he recommends simply planting seeds fresh from the fruit. To propagate, cuttings of about 3-5 inches in length (at least 3 nodes) can be taken in spring and rooted in soil. As a vine, your plants will definitely need some kind of trellis or support to trail onto, and once mature they’ll also benefit from pruning to encourage growth. As for harvest, ideally fruit should be left on the vine to ripen and picked from the ground once they fall naturally to get maximum sweetness. They will not ripen if picked green!

Jorge has travelled extensively to sample and document passion fruit- a fruit “treasure hunter” if you will. So not only were we treated to a slideshow of some truly amazing passion fruits he’s cataloged, but we got the skinny on the most tasty varieties. His rating system consisted of the following:

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And my favorite part of the lecture was sampling fruit, of course! We tried the Passiflora caerulea first. These are known as “common blue” and have softer, orange skin and deep red pulp.

I was curious about these as I’ve seen them around, but had this feeling they might fall into the “yuck” category. And yep, as suspected, they are no good! So if it’s taste you are interested in, save yourself the trouble and skip these.

The other sample we tried was the Passiflora actinia. This variety has a small, yellow fruit (see below photo of yellow rind) and rather tasty pulp. These can bear fruit twice a year – in early spring and fall. I kept the seeds from this one and planted one to see what would happen. Lo and behold, about a week later it germinated, so we’ll see how goes…We also got to nibble on a couple purple skinned varieties that I couldn’t catch the name of, but they were quite good! IMG_8142

The lecture was wrapped up with Jorge’s list of the best tasting (super yum) varieties. They are as follows:

  • Passiflora edulis
  • Passiflora quadrangularis
  • Passiflora serrulata
  • Passiflora laurifolia
  • Passiflora elegans
  • Passiflora ligularis
  • Passiflora ambigua
  • Passiflora edulis
  • Passiflora tarminiana
  • Passiflora mollisima
  • Passiflora alata
  • Passiflora maliformis
  • Passiflora nigradenia
  • Passiflora actinia
  • Passiflora sidaefolia
  • Passiflora nitida

Here is a video of Jorge’s other Passiflora lecture – this one focused on the flowers!

And now I would like to finish up this post with a little celebrity star power and a recipe. A while back I was recovering from a bad cold and had finally dragged myself out of the house and into my nearby health food store. I was dazed and wandering around the produce aisle and out of the corner of my eye caught glimpse of a man with stunning cheekbones in all black. Trying not to stare I realized that this petite, overdressed gentleman was none other than the inimitable Crispin Glover. And what did he have in his cart? One thing: a plastic bag FULL of passion fruit. Bestill my heart.

Passion fruits are a little stingy with their tropical membrane and if you have to buy them, they aren’t cheap. However their flavor is quite strong so a little can go a long way. I try to either savor them as is, or stretch that flavor by making an aqua fresca. Here is a simple recipe:

  • Cut fruit in half and scoop out the flesh (including seeds) into a blender or food processor. 
  • Blend in the blender for about 1 minute – not too long, you don’t want the seeds to get totally pulverized, just enough time to separate the pulp from the seeds.
  • Pour liquid through a sieve to strain out the seeds.
  • Add water in a 1:3 ratio (1 part juice to 3 parts water) and mix in simple syrup to taste.

*It also isn’t hard to find frozen passion fruit pulp in local markets like JONS. I’ve used the Goya brand and it’s not half bad. This can be mixed up just by adding water and simple syrup. Delicious as-is or you can use it as a mixer. Cheers!

 

cilantro & pepitas dressing

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This is a very easy “dressing” that I have been making lately and mixing with brown rice. The flavored rice makes a great base for a bowl. I like to top mine with black beans, avocado, pickled onions, extra dressing and a little labneh. The recipe is very flexible, but here is the gist.

In a food processor or blender add:

  • 1 small handful of cilantro roughly chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup raw pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds)
  • juice of half a lime
  • 2-3 tablespoons of grapeseed, olive or canola oil
  • enough water to blend and thin the dressing (I’d start with 2 tablespoons and add a little as you go if needed)
  • salt to taste

Blend until smooth and add more oil or water to get it to a smooth consistency. I leave it a little thick if I’m mixing it with rice and thin it down to drizzle extra on top if I’m doing a rice bowl.

Delish!

summer tomatoes

 

tomatos

Ahh sweet sweet tomatoes of summer. So perky, so deceptively simple. Gardening sites abound with photos of lush plants dripping with ripe fruit, perfectly plump for the picking. But my relationship to them is fraught with woe. I have tried on numerous occasions to grow my own – in containers, in a community garden, on a rooftop – and in all efforts I failed. Although I have a fairly good sense of why, I am not eager to jump back into the tomato game. So for now, I hold out hope that some kind soul will share a bit of their bounty. That is the origin of these lovelies to the left. I “traded,” a.k.a. forced a bottle of Concord grape kombucha on my friend in exchange. Someday I will try my hand at growing again, perhaps when I have better conditions to work with – namely a self-watering container and less of a chip on my shoulder.

So what did I do with these tomatoes you ask? Two things so far: served sliced up with some persian cucumber, labneh, coarse ground pepper and smoked salt on pita bread. Bomb. And…sliced up on top of my new favorite pizza recipe: Serious Eats foolproof pan pizza. Pray for a cool evening and crank that oven to 500 degrees cause it’s worth it.

 

pomegranate molasses soda

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This is an excellent, sparkly alternative to soda that I can’t get enough of. Pomegranate molasses has a deliciously tangy, caramel flavor that when mixed with bubbly water makes for a special treat.

Pomegranate molasses is available locally at stores like JONS and SUPER KING. Just mix with bubbly water to taste and put that beverage on ice! Yum.