Sunday, December 21, 2014

Winter Solstice

Cotoneaster berries in snow
Today, as we celebrate the Winter Solstice, I'd like to share with you my favorite quote about this time of year.
"There is a long standing rumor that spring is the time of renewal, but that's only if you ignore the depressing clutter and din of the season. All that flowering and budding and birthing - the messy youthfulness of Spring actually verges on SQUALOR. Spring is too busy, too full of itself, too much like a 20-year-old to be the best time for reflection, re-grouping, and starting fresh. For that, you need December." - Vivian Swift 
I fully expected that by the time I reached my 60s, I would be eager to move to a place with warm, sunny winters. But that isn't what happened. Instead, I fell in love with winter in the Pacific Northwest. I love how the season beckons me to come inside, both physically and metaphorically. Winter restores me. It is a time for me to pause, look toward the future and imagine a new year. There's nothing I have to do right now. The garden is sleeping and so can I. There will be plenty to do in Spring.

I hope that your Holidays are Merry and that the New Year will be one filled with Health and Happiness. I am grateful that you have joined me here this year. I look forward to sharing more Outlander Plant adventures in 2015.

Slainte mhath!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

'Tis The Season For Fraser Firs!

Immature cones on Fraser fir (Abies fraseri), photographed in spring at
the South Seattle College Arboretum.
I don't recall any mention in the Outlander books of Claire and Jamie having a Christmas tree. But if they did, you can be sure it would have been a Fraser fir.

Fraser firs are native to the Appalachian Mountains, in an area that includes western North Carolina, which is known to Outlander fans as the location of Fraser's Ridge. (I am NOT making this up.)

The trees are named, not for our beloved Jamie, but for the intrepid Scottish botanist, John Fraser, who explored the region in the 1780s and early 1800s. He trekked through areas no European had gone before, collecting plants that he sent back to his nursery in London, where they were propagated and introduced into the local landscape trade. Those plants included the firs that bear his name.

Here are some fun facts about Fraser firs:
  • Fraser fir is the official Christmas tree of North Carolina.
  • Fraser firs have been used more often than any other tree as the official White House Christmas tree by Presidents of the United States.
  • Steve Jobs had two fresh cut Fraser firs set up and decorated in the windows of every Apple store in the world at Christmastime in 2009.
  • Fraser firs are one of the most desirable Christmas trees in the world because of their shape, fragrance and tendency to hold onto their needles long after being cut. 
  • Fraser firs are grown on plantations in Scotland and sold throughout the UK and Ireland.  

Botanical Information

Family: Pinaceae
Genus: Abies
Species: Abies fraseri
Common name: Fraser fir, she-balsam, and sometimes (incorrectly) balsam fir, which is closely related (A. balsamea)

Fraser firs like acid soil and a cool, moist climate. They are well adapted in the UK and parts of Canada. They have a conical growth habit in youth, opening to a nearly parallel branching pattern as they age. They reach a maximum height of 30 - 50 feet. Unlike other conifers, firs, including the Fraser fir, hold their cones upright (as you see in the photo at the top of the page).

These trees are highly susceptible to attack by a non-native insect called the balsam wooly adelgid. This invasive species made its way from Europe to the US in the early 1900s. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, adelgids have destroyed 95% of the Fraser firs, creating what are called "ghost forests" of dead tree trunks.

Fortunately, there has been rapid regrowth of these trees with new seedlings replacing trees that have been lost. The future of the trees is uncertain, however. As Fraser firs mature, their bark begins to develop fissures which allow insects to penetrate. Perhaps it is best to cut them for Christmas trees before the insects get them, aye?

So there you have it Outlander fans. If you are shopping for a Christmas tree, you now know what kind to buy. As I always say - the thing about being an Outlander fan is that pretty soon everything in your life seems connected to a plot line or character from one of the books. And that includes Christmas trees.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Adventures in Food and Drink Inspired by OUTLANDER Plants

I've been exploring new food and drink territory lately, thanks to being an OUTLANDER fan and starting this blog. I enjoy trying new things and watching how one adventure leads to another. When I start working on a blog post, the research invariably turns up something I didn't know before about how certain OUTLANDER plants are used in food and beverages. These discoveries inspire me to try new things and experiment with recipes. When I write about what I've discovered, readers write back with their experiences and suggestions, and that leads to more discoveries.

What new foods or beverages have you tried since joining the OUTLANDER family? Here are a few things I wouldn't have known about if I hadn't become a fan:

1. Stinging nettles.  The post I wrote about nettles has consistently been one of the most popular posts on this blog. I've known for a long time that they are nutritious, but until I did more research, I didn't realize that they are a good source of protein. Even that information failed to get me out to gather some and try cooking with them. What it took was a nudge from Theresa Carle-Sanders, chef and author of Outlander Kitchen. (If you haven't had the pleasure, I suggest you click on over to her kitchen and check out her collection of "character inspired"recipes.)

Here's a basket full of stinging nettles, foraged from 
a fearsome patch that grows on a steep slope near my house.
I wrote to her to tell her that I wanted to use her nettle foraging video in my blog post. She was enthusiastic about the idea. Theresa is a big fan of nettles and encourages people to cook with them. She suggested I try her recipe for Nettlekopitas - spanikopita made with nettles instead of spinach. And THAT is what finally got me out the door with my wee basket. Thank you, Theresa!

(I also have to thank her for inspiring me to start this blog. I had been subscribing to hers for a couple of years when it dawned on me that I could do something similar, only with plants. She has been very supportive of my humble efforts, for which I am most appreciative.)

2. Heather Ale. In the 20+ years I've worked in the horticulture industry as a landscape designer and sales person in retail nurseries, I've probably specified, sold and/or planted acres of heather. I know a lot about these plants: how they are used in the landscape and how to care for them. But it wasn't until I was doing research for this blog that I discovered that ale has been made from heather flowers for 4,000 years!

That, of course, led me to wonder what heather ale would taste like. Which led me to The Beer Junction, a local specialty store, to see if they carry such a brew. And they do! It's called Fraoch Heather Ale, brewed in Scotland. It has a hint of unusual flavor, but overall, I would describe it as being a very good pale ale.

3. Crabbie's Ginger Beer. After I wrote about the heather ale, I started hearing from readers about other brews to try. One of those is Crabbie's Ginger Beer, something I would never have known about if not for reader comments. Unlike ginger ale, it is alcoholic. And unlike regular beer, it is gluten-free. (However, be sure to check before you drink. Apparently the Crabbie's made in Scotland is gluten-free. Crabbie's USA might not be.)

This beer is a bit sweet and has a strong ginger flavor. If you happen to like ginger and have given up regular beer because of gluten issues, this may be just the brew for you.


4. Sausage. Here's another inspiration from Outlander Kitchen. I ruled out the idea of making my own sausage long ago because I thought I'd have to buy a meat grinder and wrestle with stuffing the meat mixture into casings. But when I took a look at Theresa's recipes for Garlic and Sage Sausage and Fennel, Mint and Lemon Lamb Sausage, I realized that meat grinders and casings aren't necessary. Ground meat - pork, lamb, chicken and turkey - is readily available at my local grocery store. And sausage doesn't have to be made into links - patties are just fine. (I don't like casings anyway - they're like chewing on a piece of an old balloon - I usually cut them off of larger sausages before cooking.)

It is said that once you've seen how sausage is made, you'll never want to eat it. But that applies to products made commercially. If you make your own, you know exactly what goes into it - no mystery meat or nasty chemicals. Plus, it's easy. All you have to do is combine the ingredients, let the mixture spend a little time in the refrigerator while the flavors meld, then take it out, form it into patties and cook.

Learning how to do this inspired me to create my own recipe for chicken-apple sausage. I like this kind of sausage because it is low in fat, but the chicken-apple sausage I buy at the store has cinnamon in it. I don't like cinnamon in meat dishes. I wanted my Chicken Apple Sausage to taste like Thanksgiving Dinner. So I created my own recipe, which I've added at the bottom of this post.

4. Barley - When my kids were little, I used to make beef barley soup. It is inexpensive and filling, important qualities when you are feeding teenaged boys. It has been along time since my sons were teenagers, though, and many years since I made that soup. I pretty much forgot about it until I started working on the article about barley.

I discovered that barley is very nutritious - a good source of protein, micronutrients and fiber. It is a particularly good source of magnesium, which is important because an estimated 68 - 75% of Americans are deficient in this mineral. This information, plus the fact that I had a good supply of barley left over from the photo shoot for the article, inspired me to start making beef barley soup again. Yum!

Of course, barley is probably best known for it's role in brewing. Although I am not that fond of either beer or whisky, I found it interesting to learn about brewing and distilling. I would even consider doing a whisky tasting - especially if I can do it in Scotland! My interest led me to try a beverage I've heard of for years but never tried - barley wine. You can read my review here.

5. Potatoes - Did you know that the cultivation of potatoes was responsible for a quarter of all the population and urban growth in western Europe between 1700 and 1900? That was news to me. I still don't think of potatoes as being a super food. Their nutritional profile is not as impressive as stinging nettles or barley. But the fact that this single food could fuel SO much growth certainly got my attention.

So did the fact that I can buy a 4-pound bag of organically grown potatoes at Trader Joe's for just $4. I'm not in the habit of eating a lot of potatoes. I generally prefer non-starchy vegetables. But since I learned more about the power of the potato, I've been using them lately as the main ingredient in certain meals. For example, potato soup, with lots of chopped carrots, onions, celery and bits of crispy turkey bacon, makes a fine supper. Fresh fruit and a plate of latkes, which are simple potato pancakes, make a hearty breakfast. I now understand how potatoes were such an important fuel source for western Europeans. Potato dishes give me energy and I don't get hungry again for hours. (If you'd like to try making your own latkes, I've included my recipe below.)

What new foods or beverages have you tried since you joined the OUTLANDER world? Please share in the comments. 

Marie's Chicken and Apple Sausage

1 lb. ground chicken
1/4 c. minced tart apple (Granny Smith or Honeycrisp work well)
1/4 c. minced onion
2 tsp. ground sage
1/2 tsp. celery seed
1-1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/3 c. bread crumbs (I use Panko)

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Wash your hands (as Claire would remind you) and use them to mix everything together. Take some time with this to be sure the spices are evenly distributed. Form the sausage mixture into a roll and wrap tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight.

When ready to cook, unwrap the sausage, cut slices to form patties and fry in just enough butter to keep them from sticking to the pan. Be careful not to overcook or the patties will be dry.

A Simple Recipe for Latkes 

4 large potatoes (russet or Yukon gold), grated and drained on paper or cloth kitchen towels
1 small onion grated or cut into very thin slices
4-5 Tbs. bread crumbs
1 beaten egg
1 tsp. sea salt
sunflower oil for frying

Combine all ingredients. Heat oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Drop spoonfuls of the potato mixture into the pan and flatten out to form pancakes. Let cook 4-5 minutes on each side or until crispy and golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Makes about 8 pancakes. Some people like to top them with sour cream or applesauce. I like to serve them with slices of fresh apples or pears.