Foraging Elderberries

Elderberry Bush 1

This summer has been a great one. We’ve spent most weekends at the beach, taking walks in our local parks, and just relaxing at home. I’ve even managed to get in some summer reading, which, if I were the type of person to have a summer bucket list, would probably be somewhere near the top of my list. I’ve made my way through Americanah, The Girl on the Train, Everything I Never Told You, The Good Earth, and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (I really enjoyed all but the last one, which just kind of bored me, despite others loving it). Granted, a few of these were audiobooks, but with my ridiculously-long commute, the hell if I’m not counting them.

I also had a chance to do some foraging for elderberries this month, which, along with nettle, are one of my all-time favorite things to forage. And fortunately for me, the spot I get them from is right along the sidewalk of some nearby woodlands, so the picking’s easy! In five minutes, I have an entire bagful.

Elderberries are part of the honeysuckle family (which I had to tell you because, really, doesn’t that sound like an awesome family to be part of?) and if you haven’t heard of the berries, you’ve probably heard of—or even tasted—the flowers, as that is what the famous St. Germain liqueur is made from. The scent of the flowers is delicate, like a cross between vanilla and honey (some bushes are more fragrant than others). Here in New England, they bloom around mid-June and can commonly be seen alongside roadsides—every highway I drive seems to have at least a few bushes. Locating the flowers first is a good way to find the berries a couple of months later. I swear you’ll see them everywhere once you start looking!

Berries in Bowl

By mid-August, the flowers have turned into dark purple berries, which tip down toward the ground like little berry umbrellas. You can’t eat the berries raw (or, at least, they don’t taste all that great), but when you cook them, their very best qualities present themselves: a deeply fruity berry-grape taste and an intoxicating scent. You can bake with them, turn them into jams and compotes (see my version here), steep them in alcohol (photos here and here), or—my favorite—simmer them into a syrup, which is excellent when diluted with seltzer, or drizzled over yogurt or pancakes. I also love to use the syrup in my kombucha (during the second ferment, for you all kombucha brewers out there).

Aside from their lovely sweet-tart taste, elderberries are highly nutritious and medicinal. They are rich in flavonoids—the natural compounds with antioxidant qualities that protect cells against damage or infections—and contain vitamins A and B, along with significant amounts of vitamin C and amino acids.

Elderberry has long been known as one of the most effective medicinal plants for preventing and treating cold and fever, and it also stimulates the immune system. Many people take a shot of the syrup a day during winter to stave off viruses. In fact, Whole Foods and Amazon both sell tiny 3-oz bottles of the stuff for over $20 a piece! Even more reason to make your own (recipe below).

If you’re new to foraging elderberries, this link provides a great resource for positive plant identification. Once you find the berries, the options for using them are endless!

Elderberry Syrup

Bottled syrup.

Elderberry Syrup
Once you collect your ripe elderberries, the most time-consuming part is removing the berries from the stems (see photo above), which cannot be consumed. I find the process really relaxing though—get some tea, sit outside, and start tickling those berries off their little umbrellas. // As for the syrup, feel free to swap or add in whatever spices you like (clove or anise are nice too). I like to use raw honey as it ups the nutrition factor even more—it contains live enzymes that are good for your gut—but regular honey is fine too. // Yield: 3 cups

3 cups fresh elderberries, washed, unripe berries discarded
6 cups water
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1-inch cinnamon stick
1 whole vanilla bean
1 cup raw honey

Combine everything but the honey in a large pot (I like to scrap the vanilla bean seeds into the pot, then throw in the pod too).

Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for at least one hour, or until the liquid is reduced by half (I can usually tell by the streaks/marks left on the side of the pan as it cooks down). Mash the elderberries a few times while it’s simmering, if you happen to be in the kitchen. The scent will be intoxicating.

Once reduced, let the mixture cool to warm (about 100°F degrees; if it’s any warmer, it will kill off those good enzymes in the raw honey), then strain into a large bowl, mashing the berries in the strainer to get all the juices out. If a few pieces get through, that’s fine.

Whisk in the raw honey until thoroughly combined, then bottle. Refrigerate indefinitely and use however you like—in seltzer, over yogurt and pancakes, or on its own as an immune-boosting shot.

For Elderberry Kombucha: Add 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the syrup to a 750-ml swing-top bottle and fill the rest of the bottle with brewed (fermented) kombucha. Let sit on the counter for 2 to 3 days, or until effervescent and fizzy. Refrigerate. Serve over ice.

Elderberry Kombucha

Elderberry kombucha (syrup behind it).

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Cream Scones

Scone 5

This scone recipe is one of the only recipes I know by heart. I’m not sure how long I’ve been making them—it’s probably creeping up on a decade now—but I can tell you this: every person I have ever made them for has either 1) requested the recipe, and/or 2) requested that I bring them to all future gatherings. This includes people who 1) don’t normally cook, and/or 2) say they “never thought they liked scones.”

The secret lies in the cream. Use any other liquid—milk, buttermilk, half & half—and they’re just not the same. Use the cream and you’re in for the flakiest, tastiest, most delicate scone you’ve ever had in your life, I promise. Even fancy bakery shop versions pale in comparison.

I’m headed to the Adirondack Mountains in New York next week (vacation! finally!) to spend some time with my family, and these scones are already on our pre-planned menu (yes, my sister and I do this in advance to make everyone’s lives easier). We bring the scones frozen and unbaked (dried cherry and chocolate chip are this year’s options), and bake them up fresh in the morning. Scone and vacation bliss all rolled into one.

Unbaked Scone

Cream Scones
I first found this recipe on the Smitten Kitchen blog, but it’s originally from the America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook (which I own and love). I’ve tried countless other scone recipes in addition to this one, and none have ever held a candle to these. As I mentioned, I make the full batch then freeze the extras (cut and unbaked, as seen above). When needed, just bake them straight out of the freezer—adding a minute or two to the cooking time (no defrosting required). They are a freezer staple and especially convenient when hosting overnight guests.

2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour (I’ve tried subbing half whole-wheat and it’s good, but not quite the same)
1 tablespoon baking powder
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup chocolate chips, chopped nuts, or chopped dried fruit
1 cup heavy cream (I like Trader Joe’s brand or High Lawn Farms because they are the only two I’ve found without stabilizers or additives)

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425°F.

Whisk flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt together in large bowl.

Using a pastry blender (this is what I use) or your fingertips, quickly cut butter into flour mixture until mixture resembles coarse meal, with a few slightly larger butter lumps; when doing it with your fingers, just quickly rub the flour-coated butter pieces between your thumb and middle finger, almost like you’re snapping your fingers. The goal is to create thin little sheets and pea-sized flecks of butter, so work quickly. You do not want the butter to melt or soften at all (the coarse, cold bits are what make the scones flaky)—it should not be uniform in texture.

Stir in chocolate chips or add-in of choice.

Pour the heavy cream over the mixture, and mix with a rubber spatula or fork until dough begins to form, about 30 seconds. Transfer dough and all dry, floury bits to your countertop and knead dough by hand just until it comes together into a rough, sticky ball, 5 to 10 seconds. Try not to overwork the dough. You still don’t want those butter bits to melt.

Form dough into a large square or circle and cut into 8 wedges or squares. You can also just scoop out the dough using a large ice cream scoop if you prefer rounds.

If you don’t want to bake all the scones at once, place the extras on a sheet and transfer to the freezer. Once frozen, transfer scones to a plastic bag for future baking.

For those you want to bake right away, place rounds or wedges on an ungreased baking sheet. Brush with milk or cream and sprinkle with coarse sugar if desired. Bake until edges are slightly browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool on wire rack for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, within a few hours of baking them (scones are one of those things that don’t keep very well—though they can be saved by a little reheat in the toaster oven if necessary).

Note: If you have extra cream and you’re not sure how to use it up, just put half a cup or so in a mason jar and shake vigorously until the “sloshing” noise subsides and the cream has turned from a liquid into soft-whipped cream. Add a spoonful of sugar and shake a little more. Voila, fresh whipped cream! Put it on your scone with jam or stewed berries (as pictured below).

Scones 4

My Top 10 Kitchen Tips

Slicing bread for the freezer (Tip 5).

Slicing bread for the freezer (Tip #2).

Conversations about food are, not surprisingly, some of my favorite conversations to have.

But conversations about food that happen while in the act of cooking—now those are the very best.

They begin, of course, in the kitchen, the invariable place where people linger, no matter how much bigger/cooler/quieter any other room in the house. They’re conversations that are a little of this and a little of that (How’s your mom doing? Where’s this wine from?), jumping around like the cooking itself. But through them, bits of knowledge and cooking “style” emerge. I’ve never seen someone cut an onion like that!, or, I love this little butter knife, or, How do you keep your cilantro fresh for so long?! 

The answers to these questions come from years of cooking, or notes from a grandmother’s cookbook, or a friend’s recommendation, or something somebody once read in a magazine at the doctor’s office. Kitchen fairy dust. We take them home and apply them to our own cooking, adapting as we see fit, and perhaps even re-telling to future guests at our own table.

With that in mind, I’m sharing ten of my favorite cooking and kitchen tips here today. They’re quite a mish-mash and some you probably already know, but perhaps you’ll find a few you can hang onto. Feel free to share your own in the comments as well! 🙂


My Top 10 Kitchen Tips

  1. When prepping for a meal, keep a mixing bowl on the counter just for garbage/scraps. That way you’re not walking to the trash every five seconds to throw peels and onion skins away. I seriously couldn’t function without doing this and the garbage can is only about 3 steps away, ha. Just dump out the bowl once full, or at the end of cooking.

  2. Keep a loaf of sliced bread in the freezer. Whenever I make homemade bread, or buy a nice artisan loaf from the store, I slice it all and put it directly in the freezer. That way nothing goes stale and we always have bread—very important considering toast is my favorite breakfast item. Sliced bread defrosts in no time, so all you need to do is take it out a few minutes before mealtime (or put it directly in the toaster). To serve warm, just wrap in foil and put in a 400°F oven for 10 minutes or so. // As for bread ends and crusts certain people despise, I save them in a bag in the freezer. When it’s full, I pulse in the food processor for instant breadcrumbs, which I use for breaded chicken.

  3. Keeping on the freezer theme, keep a running list of all the things you have in your freezer. I keep mine in the Evernote app (see my screen shot below), so I can access the list anywhere. This is especially helpful when at the store, or when thinking about dinner at 3 pm and trying to figure out a plan. It really helps you use up stuff too, rather than letting it go to waste. Note: We have a small freezer (see photo below) and I’m able to fit all that stuff by stacking things flat and being completely anal about it, ha—though there is still a certain risk factor when you open the door sometimes, as Suraj will tell you, and it’s usually a full pint of Häagen-Dazs to the foot.

    Screenshot (5)

    You name, I have a list for it.

    Freezer

    Jenga, freezer edition. Lots of bread, burgers (veg and reg), broth, beans, grains (farro), and ice cream of course. The meats and veggies are in the back.


  4. Make double batches of grains, rice, and beans on a Sunday (or whatever day you have free), and freeze the leftovers flat in a gallon-size bag. I know I’ve mentioned this before (here), but I truly find this indispensable. Just last week, Suraj and I were eating leftovers for a quick work lunch and he mentioned that his curry would be great with rice, which we didn’t have in the fridge and had no time to make. I grabbed the bag of frozen rice out of the freezer, knocked off a chunk, and tossed it in his bowl. Such a lifelunchsaver. // Bonus tip: While you’re cooking up your grains, start washing and slicing up any produce you have the fridge. This little bit of prep work goes a long way on busy weeknights or when someone wants a snack. Sliced carrots, celery, and peppers are a favorite.

  5. When making homemade burgers, meatballs, or kebabs, add shredded zucchini. This keeps them from drying out, adds flavor, and makes them healthier. It also helps you use up zucchini if you’re lucky enough to have an abundance! I add 1 to 2 cups shredded zucchini for every 1 1/4 lbs meat (usually lamb or turkey). This makes at least 8 burgers for us, and I freeze half the batch for future dinners. // Since we don’t have a grill, we cook our burgers by first searing in a hot cast-iron pan, then transferring to a 400°F for 10 to 15 minutes. Perfectly cooked burgers every time, plus you can throw some potatoes into the oven around the same time for oven fries. This tip originally came from one of my favorite cookbooks, Jerusalem, and the author’s turkey and zucchini burgers (recipe can be found here if you’re interested).

  6. If you get stuck coming up with a new dinner every night, try at least establishing a “theme” each night and using that as a template. For instance, make Monday “meat and potatoes” night, Tuesday “pasta” night, Wednesday “international” night, and Thursday takeout. Then be creative within those parameters. I find this helps prevent burnout and keeps me from getting overwhelmed with ideas. Thursday, for example, is always “sausage and roasted veg” night for us because I have no time/energy by week’s end. This strategy can also be really useful for families with children, as it gives kids the structure they often crave.

  7. My favorite bread dip / oil for roasting vegetables / salad dressing: Garlic confit. It sounds fancy but is dead easy to make. Heat a cup of olive oil over low to medium heat. Add whole, unpeeled cloves of garlic (I add at least 20-25 cloves, or two small heads), a pinch of kosher salt, and any herbs you like (I just do red pepper flakes). Let simmer for 20 minutes. The cloves soften and can be pulled out of their skins and mashed onto bread or added to roasted veggies. The garlic-infused olive oil is pretty much amazing on anything, from meat to veggies to salad (with a little lemon juice). It also keeps in the fridge indefinitely (note that my oil solidifies once chilled, though not all olive oils do).  Garlic Confit

  8. My fastest, goes-with-anything dip: Greek yogurt + squirt of Sriracha. Dash of lime, cumin, and/or salt optional. I eat this with sausage (on Thursdays!), sweet potato fries, and basically any vegetable I can dip (cooked or raw).

  9. Save your strawberry tops (yes, the leaf part) and add them to a bottle of water. Leave overnight and the next day you’ll have delicious strawberry-flavored water. This works with actual berries too, but I prefer eating those! Use organic if you can, since you’re using the leaves. This is a great drink for parties, or when you’re bored with just drinking regular water.

  10. You can clean almost everything with a simple solution of vinegar + water. I measure equal parts of each, add in a few drops of essential oil (usually lemongrass and grapefruit, but anything will work), and put it in a spray bottle. I use this solution throughout the house, and even as a vegetable- and fruit-wash, usually diluted with a little more water. Vinegar is one of the best all-purpose, natural cleaners you can find.

Oh, and if you’re still wondering how I keep my cilantro fresh for so long (astute reader that you are), I wrap it in a moist paper towel, put it in a plastic bag, and keep it in the crisper drawer in the fridge. Lasts for a good two weeks that way.

I’d love to hear your favorite tips in the comments below!

Sofrito (a Dinner Savior)

Sofrito

It’s been a busy couple weeks around here. First I came down with some wicked virus that nearly knocked me out cold, then it was Suraj’s birthday (which we celebrated by way of a day-long music concert with friends and this cake), and finally it was off to Austin, TX for a work conference.

The conference was great and I got to meet up with a few of my wonderful authors, but my wallet was lost/stolen the first night we got there, while out exploring, and I’ve spent way too much since then trying to cancel and replace everything. Thankfully, I did make it through airport security sans ID (after some serious TSA questioning and a way-beyond-first-base pat down) and all is back in order now.

Despite that little setback, Austin was fantastic. The food was amazing, the vibe was welcoming and fun, and the city itself was beautiful. My top food picks, in case you ever plan on visiting, were Homeslice Pizza, Kerbey Lane Café (fried green tomato BLT, oh my), The Salty Sow (we magically got in without reservations, score!), Amy’s Ice Cream, Bangers, and Easy Tiger (amazing breads—I flew home with two loaves). Oh, and I also fell in love with Uber there. SO much better than taxis.

Coming back home from travel, I’m always anxious to get back into the kitchen, but rarely have the energy + groceries to jump in full-steam. That’s where my ultimate back-pocket recipe, aka sofrito, comes in. It is one of my freezer MUST-HAVES.

If you’re not familiar, sofrito is a simple Spanish sauce made of vegetables blitzed in a blender—mainly tomatoes, peppers, and onions. It takes almost no time to prepare but is the perfect avenue to any number of flavorful meals. You just heat, add in any meat, seafood, and/or vegetables you like, and serve with rice or pasta.

And just like that, you’re back in the dinner game.

Sofrito Meal

Sofrito
I like to make the full recipe here, then remove half, cool, and freeze in a gallon-size freezer bag (as I did with the broth here). That way I have one meal ready for now, and one I can make later. Along with the sweet bell peppers, we also like to add in a few Indian chilis, which I recommend if you like things hot. I’m sure other herbs like parsley would be welcome as well (this is a great way to use up CSA overflow!). If you’d like to thin down the sauce, just add broth or white wine. // Yield: 4 cups, at least

1 large can (28 oz) peeled plum tomatoes, such as San Marzano
2 red bell peppers (or 1 red + 1 green), roughly chopped
2 medium yellow onions, roughly chopped
5 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1 bunch cilantro, stems included
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/3 to 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Combine all ingredients except for olive oil in a blender or large food processor (or work in batches). Pulse until finely chopped. I like to be a little bit rough (as pictured), rather than totally smooth, but it’s up to you.

In a large pot, heat olive oil over medium-high until shimmering. Add mixture and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened and reduced, 25 to 30 minutes (reduce heat if browning at edge). Add salt to taste.

If saving any portion for later, remove from pan, let cool completely, then transfer to an airtight container. Refrigerate up to 2 weeks, or freeze up to 6 months.


To turn your sofrito into meal: After the sauce has cooked down, add in any protein you like, such as chunks of boneless chicken or seafood, and cook until done. Our favorites are chicken thigh meat, mussels, shrimp, or a combination of seafood (such as Trader Joe’s seafood trio).

Serve hot with pasta or rice.


To make my all-time favorite sofrito meal (pictured): While the sofrito is cooking down, boil a pot of water for rice. Rinse 1 cup (or more) of basmati rice, then add to boiling water. Cook, at a boil, for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside. Keep warm in a covered bowl.

Peel 2 large, very ripe plantains and cut into slices. Salt the slices well and then fry in a little coconut oil until browned on both sides. This should only take a few minutes. (Fried plantains are SO easy, and SO delicious.) Set aside and/or cover with foil to keep warm.

Add peeled, uncooked shrimp to the simmering sofrito (we do about 20 to 25 shrimp) and one green pepper (cut into chunks) and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the shrimp is opaque and green pepper is somewhat tender.

Top sofrito with additional cilantro if you have it, and serve alongside basmati rice, fried plantains, and avocado (I like a little Greek yogurt on top of the plantains too).

Sofrito Meal 2

Foraging Nettles

Nettle Plant 1

My mom comes to visit at least once a year. She stays a few days, and, unasked, does all my laundry, mending, cleaning, and so on. She claims she “enjoys” doing these things and of course I do nothing to dispute that.

We do try to add in a few activities and outings other than chores when she comes to stay, of course, and those usually include checking out new places/museums/shows, eating semi-fancy meals out, and cooking Indian food at home for her (she is a big fan).

A few years back, she came to visit around Mother’s Day and I felt like I really had to up the ante. Knowing she loves the outdoors as much as I do, I signed us up for a “Wild Coastal Edibles” walk, which I found while browsing my local conservation area’s website (not being a native New Englander, I’m always looking for new parks and areas to explore). The walk was led by author, environmentalist, and wild foods enthusiast Russ Cohen, and for four hours on a Sunday morning, he took us around Marblehead, Massachusetts and taught us all about the wild plants and weeds right under our noses that we could safely pick and eat without harming ourselves or the overall vegetation. We picked garlic mustard, chickweed, dandelion, sassafras (smells like root beer!), nettle, elderflower, kelp and kombu (seaweed), beach peas, and so much more. After the walk, he treated us to a spread of foods he had already prepared using some of these foods. The knotweed crumble bars still haunt my dreams—they were so fantastic. Needless to say, Mom and I loved the walk so much that we still talk about it. If you ever find one of these walks in your area, it’s definitely worth checking out!

After the walk, I bought a couple of books on wild edibles and an app (“Wild Edibles Forage” by “Wildman” Steve Brill) for my phone, but most of what I know I learned on that walk. Foraging is just so fun. It gives you a chance to learn about what’s around you and really interact with your environment and the bounty it can provide. You also sometimes happen to run into cool people doing the same thing as you—old Greek and Italian men in particular (usually hunting mushrooms or wild greens). Foraging is an age-old tradition and I’m all about bringing it back into style.

Since moving to New Hampshire last year, I’ve found a few different edibles around where I live. Most I find just by walking or cycling by and seeing them. I then take a photo and/or inspect the plant for positive identification (usually using my app) and make sure it’s in a place where it’s okay to pick. Many plants, even in parks, are fine to pick responsibly, so long as you are only helping the situation—for invasive plants, this usually means pulling out the whole plant, so it doesn’t keep spreading; for non-invasive plants, this usually means picking only part of the plant, so it can easily keep producing/reproducing. Check with your local park for their rules and regulations. It goes without saying that any edibles on someone’s property should only be picked with permission (though I usually find this is readily given… especially in the case of dandelion greens and other weeds). And be sure no spray has been applied to the plants.

Trio of Greens

From left: garlic mustard, dandelion, stinging nettle (note gloved hand!).

In summer, my favorite thing to pick is berries—blackberries are especially plentiful in the New England area, as our elderberries, which I hope to post about in a few months’ time, when they’re ripe for picking. In spring, stinging nettles are my top pick (literally). It took me a long time to finally find them, but when you do, you know—usually by getting stung by their tiny hairs (the pain is temporary and nothing major). They grow near a stream on a dead-end road I walk in my neighborhood. I feel comfortable picking them from there because it’s rural road with hardly any traffic and the land is conservation area.

Nettles, once cooked, taste like an earthy spinach, and go exceptionally well with pasta, eggs, or anything creamy. They are one of the most healthful foods on Earth, with more protein than any other green. They’re also very high in iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, carotenoids, vitamins C, K, and B-complex, and more. Nettles have long been thought to help treat the chronically ill, especially those with iron deficiency, and have also been used as a diuretic aid and an anti-inflammatory. This link provides more info should you be interested.

Nettle Plant 2

Ready to be picked! I’ll snip the top 5 to 6 inches (or 2 to 3 sets of leaves) of these plants.

I know ramps are the current darling of foraging and farmer’s markets, but I would not be surprised if nettle took over the spotlight very soon. If you’re interested in picking your own, here’s what you need to know.

Where they grow: Partially shaded, moist, rich soil. Disturbed habitats, fields, open woodlands, edges of trails, thickets, and riverbanks. Nettles can be found in most of the continental U.S., Canada, and Mexico, as well as most of the temperate world.

Road

My foraging spot (the little nook to the right is where the nettles live).

When to collect: Early spring, before they flower and become inedible (which is close to late spring/early summer). You can also try collecting them in autumn, when new growth appears.

How to identify: Stinging nettles sting. This causes minor skin irritation (like a bee sting) but disappears within an hour. I was actually pretty excited to get stung the first time because it meant positive identification, but one sting was enough. You should always wear gloves and long sleeves when collecting them.

The stem of a stinging nettle plant has tiny, almost indistinguishable hairs (these are what sting) and is ribbed, four-sided, and hollow on the inside. They grow from 3 to 7 feet tall, though you want to collect them when they’re young, around 2 to 3 feet (as pictured). The leaves are heart-shaped with a toothed edge and pointed tip, and appear in pairs (meaning one right across from the other on the stem); I find the leaves are one of the best ways to find and identify them. When the plant flowers, the flowers are small and green. At flowering stage, they’re past their potential for picking, but you can at least mark the location for next year.

How to collect: Wear long sleeves, pants, and gloves. Using scissors, snip off the top third of the plant, or the first 5 to 6 inches, right above a leaf nodule/pair if you can so it’ll grow right back (and you can collect again). This the most tender part of the plant.

Bag of Nettles

Ten minutes of work yields a full bag!

How to prepare: Rinse thoroughly in several changes of water to remove any dirt and bugs. I like add a little white vinegar to the water too, just to make sure I’ve gotten everything off. I use tongs for swirling/washing so I don’t touch the hairs.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add a tablespoon or two of kosher salt. Boil the nettle for about 5 minutes—this will completely deactivate the stinging hairs and make them perfectly safe to eat. You can also steam the nettles for the same amount of time instead of boiling; some say this helps them retain their flavor better than boiling.

Chop up the wilted greens and sauté with garlic and olive oil (and other greens if you like—I like broccoli rabe, but you may want to use something sweeter, like baby spinach, to offset the more forward flavor of the nettle) and add to pasta. Or make pesto. Or add to soups. Or eggs. Basically any place you add or like greens, nettles can go! The leftover cooking water (broth) is also deeply nutritious and can be used in soups. You can freeze the wilted nettle for future use as well.

Wilted Nettle

Wilted (cooked) nettle.

With this year’s first batch, I made this Greek wild greens and feta pie (pictured below), using a combination of nettle, dandelion greens, and garlic mustard (pictured above) in place of the chard. It was wonderful. We packed a few slices for a beach picnic, ate some for breakfast, and the rest I shared at work—they were gone in seconds. Last year, I made a big batch of this nettle pesto and froze it for quick weeknight pasta meals.

I know that foraging can seem a little intimidating, but I find the best strategy is to pick one or two plants to look for, and focus on those (get the kids involved too!). And if you happen to get “muggled” as my friend puts it (i.e., funny looks from someone who has no clue what you’re doing), use it as an opportunity to help spread the word! People are genuinely interested, and often end up sharing a great story about how their grandparents used to do the same, or where they’ve seen an untouched patch of berries or an apple tree. Embrace the plants, and the people too!

Wild Greens Pie

Greek wild greens and feta pie (hortopita).

Healthy Snacks

Snacks 1

The perks of being a cookbook editor are probably pretty obvious—you get to read hundreds upon hundreds of great recipes day after day. Yes, it is fun—and yes, it is exhausting. I liken it to going to the grocery store and buying one of every single thing in the store. You can make so…many…things…! The possibilities are endless! But where do you even begin? What do you do?

Simple. You faint like an over-excited goat.

(Sorry, too great not to share.)

Really though, this is what actually happens: You bookmark all your favorite recipes while you’re editing, tell everyone at lunch about your grand cooking plans—then forget about it all completely by the time you’ve reached home at 7:30 pm. You eat Chipotle for dinner.

BUT WAIT!, months later, the printed book arrives and it’s like Christmas! You get excited all over again, go nuts with your arrow flags, and bring an advanced copy home to (finally) commit to the task.

You make many, many snacks (or smoothies, or one-pot dinners, or whatever the subject may be) and declare how much you love your job, and your authors. You text your coworker friends, email your author your thanks, and decide to write a post on your blog about it all, which, ironically, is probably how you came across the book idea/author in the first place (yep, a blog).

That was a fun ride, wasn’t it? #booklyfe

So back to the snacks. They come from a new book called The Best Homemade Kids’ Snacks on the Planet (yes I realize the title is wicked long—it is part of a series). The author, Laura Fuentes, and I are now working on our third book project together, which pretty much puts us in best-bud territory. Laura’s recipes are awesome, and the photos she and Alison Bickel churn out are amazing. Do I sound like a proud parent? Well, I am. Sometimes you have to gloat.

After finally getting my hands on a copy yesterday (there are quite a few of us fighting over them), I picked two recipes to make for myself. This was not an easy decision as 1) I LOVE snacks, a fact you may remember from this post, and 2) I was starving so all of the recipes seemed to be calling my name. I finally settled on one one super-simple, no-bake recipe (cookie dough balls) and one healthy baked treat (a granola-type bar). I loved them both so much that I asked Laura if I could share each of them here, and she of course agreed (best buds!).

Whether you’re making them for yourself or your kids, these are quick and easy recipes. They’re also filled with natural ingredients, and are about a zillion times better than the store-bought stuff, from both a taste and a nutritional standpoint. I’ll be making them weekly—until I’m swayed by the rest of my tabbed recipe pages, of course.

No-Bake Cookie Dough Balls
These are actually called “Winnie the Pooh Snacks” in the book, but I felt slightly creepy using that title as I was just making them for myself and thought Suraj might be a bit weirded out seeing a container with that label in the fridge. They’re so good though! Like a mix between a buckeye (minus the chocolate) and peanut butter cookie dough—but with all-natural ingredients. If you’re unsure on the coconut, I’d encourage you to try them anyway, as I didn’t find that flavor noticeable at all. Next time I’m adding a few mini chocolate chips too. // Yield: 8 to 10 balls

1/2 cup (112 g) creamy almond butter (I used ¼ cup almond butter + ¼ cup natural peanut butter—definitely recommend)
1/4 cup (85 g) honey
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup (27 g) unsweetened, dried coconut
1/3 cup (42 g) coconut flour* (see Note below)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients, mixing until they form a ball of dough. If your dough is dry, add a little more nut butter or honey. If it’s too wet, add a little more coconut flour. (Mine was just fine.)

Scoop out tablespoon-size portions and roll into balls.

Place on a plate and serve immediately or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to three days.

Note: Coconut flour is available in grocery stores now, and is a great product to keep on hand. It contains no gluten and no grain, and is low in digestive carbs and high in fiber and protein. It contains only one, all-natural ingredient—coconut—but is actually very subtle (and slightly sweet) in taste, so even if you don’t like coconut, you really can’t detect much of that flavor. And because it’s so high in fiber, you only need a small amount in any recipes calling for it, as it absorbs a good deal of liquid/moisture.


Energy Bars (aka Homemade KIND Bars)
These fruit and nut bars are the perfect cross between a granola bar and rice krispie treat, and remind me a lot of KIND bars (only with fewer ingredients). Light enough for a snack, but still satisfying. Brown rice syrup is available in most grocery stores, usually near the honey. You can swap out pretty much any of the nuts or fruit with what you have on hand, as I did below. Note that when you take them out of the oven, they may seem too soft, but they set up more once they’re full cooled. You can cut them into either squares or bars. // Yield: 8 bars or 16 squares

1 cup (110 g) almonds, coarsely chopped (I used blanched, sliced almonds)
1/2 cup (48 g) sunflower seeds, chopped (I used a mix of hemp seeds, sesame seeds, and crushed peanuts instead, as I didn’t have sunflower seeds)
1/3 cup (6 g) crisped brown rice cereal (I used plain puffed white)
1/4 cup (35 g) raisins
1/4 cup (35 g) dried blueberries (I just used ½ cup chopped dried cherries for the raisins/blueberries)
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup (115 g) brown rice syrup

Preheat the oven to 325°F (170°C). Line a square baking pan with parchment paper. (I greased it with a little coconut oil first so the paper would stick.)

In a large mixing bowl, combine almonds, sunflower seeds, brown rice cereal, raisins, blueberries, sea salt, and cinnamon. Pour brown rice syrup over nuts and fruits, using a spatula to evenly distribute the syrup throughout.

Pour mixture into baking pan. Place a second piece of parchment or waxed paper on top of mixture and press down to compact ingredients (I just used wet hands). Remove the top layer of paper.

Bake for 20 to 22 minutes, or until the bars begin to brown around the edges. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature.

Using excess parchment paper as handles, lift the bars out of the pan and place on a cutting board, paper side up. Peel off paper and cut into bars or squares. Store extras in the fridge. I like to wrap them individually in waxed paper so I can pack them in my lunch bag.

Snacks 4

Bone Broth: A How-To

Stock Pot

Homemade chicken broth, or bone broth of any kind, is a highly nutritious food and one that’s been in the press quite a bit lately (New York Times, Forbes, etc.). Essentially, it is the liquid that results from cooking down bones/meat + vegetables + water for anywhere from 6 to 24 hours (if you add salt and seasoning to it, it’s called broth; if you don’t, it’s called stock).

Bone broth dates back to prehistoric times, but has recently been rediscovered for its health benefits. While there are a lot of magical claims swirling around on the subject, here are the top three reasons I love it and consider it an important food:

  • Homemade broth is full of nutrients, including calcium and magnesium, two important minerals that we can absorb easily through drinking/eating it. Bone broth also contains glucosamine and chondroiton, which are thought to help ease arthritis and joint pain (many people take these in supplement form, but broth is an excellent all-natural source).
  • Bone broth is rich in gelatin. Gelatin is source of protein, helps support digestive health (many say it can help heal digestive disorders), and keeps our skin, hair, and fingernails healthy and strong. Everyone benefits from adding gelatin to their diet.
  • Bone broth proves our Moms are always right. Studies now show that chicken soup does indeed help cure colds and flu. Why did we ever doubt them? 

To summarize, bone broth is good for our guts, bones, joints, and skin (and soul if you’re still following Jack Canfield). It also happens to taste great and turns every soup we make into something remarkable… which is probably why I make a huge batch of the stuff every other week. The flavor of homemade broth is rich and decidely umami. Store-bought versions just don’t compare, from both a health and taste perspective. Just check out the ingredients next time you buy a can or carton; it’s full of flavorings and preservatives that try to mimic the flavor of the real stuff, but always fall short.

The good news is that you can make your own homemade broth for next to nothing, using ingredients you probably discard otherwise. Just how do you it? Here is my simple and easy method: I keep a gallon-size “broth bag” in my freezer at all times. Whenever we have bones left over from a meal, such as roasted chicken, they go in the bag. Whenever I have vegetable cores and scraps leftover from food prep, they go in the bag. When they bag is full—I try to fill it with roughly half bones and half veggies—I dump the contents into a big pot, cover it with water, add some peppercorns, and let it simmer all day or night. In the end, the bones are so broken down you can easily snap or crush them, all the veggies are spent, and the resulting liquid is full of both nutrients and flavor. I strain and discard all the solids, add salt, and refrigerate or freeze the broth, using it throughout the week to make soups and stews, braise other meats and vegetables, and cook rice in. It’s indispensable in our kitchen.

Any combination of meat/bones and veggies will work. In the broth pictured, for instance, the following is what I used. The first three items were leftover from cutting up a whole (organic) chicken, which is super easy and cost-effective once you get the hang of it. All of these items filled one gallon-size freezer bag:

  • two raw chicken wings, including tips
  • one raw chicken back (the part between the breasts)
  • one giblet pack that was inside the whole chicken (I took out the liver piece—it’s too strong for broth)
  • one pork bone shoulder (leftover from slow cooker pulled pork we had made)
  • roasted chicken thigh bones (meat had already been eaten off; we had baked the thighs)
  • kale stems
  • carrot peels
  • outer leaves of a cabbage
  • base of a bunch of celery, including leaves
  • base and tops of a few summer squash/zucchini
  • onion skins
  • ginger peels
  • turmeric peels

I realize that some people may wrinkle their noses at this list and the prospect of cooking down chicken bones and other otherwise-unsavory parts, but I actually find it to be quite a beautiful and respectful act. Using all these parts allows us to use the whole animal—not just the all-mighty “boneless, skinless chicken breast”—which is much more considerate and ethical to both the animal and our environment as a whole. It goes without saying that choosing and using organic meats (preferably pastured and local too) is also part of this. The good news here is that most of these items are quite cheap, and very often on sale. I never pay more than $10 to $12 for a whole, organic chicken; chicken thighs on the bone are usually under $5 for a pack of 5 to 6; and sometimes you can even find “chicken backs,” which are sold expressly for making broth, for just a few bucks.

I’ve provided a template recipe for making your own bone broth below, which I encourage you to use as a jumping off point. Try it once and I promise you’ll be a convert.

[Hover over the photos for captions.]


Bone Broth
You really can’t “mess up” broth—basically any bones or meat-on-the-bone you can save/use are great. The meat can be either cooked or uncooked; I usually use a combination. As for vegetable scraps, with the exception of potatoes and tomatoes, any sort are welcome. // All this said, if you really want to make things easy on yourself: buy an organic rotisserie chicken from the store, remove all the meat and use it in other meals, and cook whatever remains along with a bunch of carrots, celery, and an onion. You could also do this with a raw whole chicken too. // Yield: About 16 cups

Meat Parts (cooked or uncooked; with or without meat attached; organic highly preferred):
Leftover pieces of rotisserie or roasted chicken, including bones with or without meat on them (eaten or uneaten—you will be boiling it for hours so you really needn’t worry about contamination)
Chicken wings, including tips
Chicken backs and/or feet (I realize this sounds weird, but they make great broth!)
Beef, lamb, or pork bones

Vegetable Parts (basically anything you’d put in the compost bin; organic wherever possible):
Kale, chard, or any other hearty greens, stems especially
Cabbage, outer leaves and core especially
Celery, including bottom core and leaves
Carrots, including peels and tops
Cilantro or parsley stems
Onion and garlic skins (or just a whole onion, quartered)
Leeks, especially the (typically inedible) green tops
Lemon peels

Other Add-Ins (for Flavor):
Whole peppercorns
Bay Leaf
Any herbs you may have, such as rosemary or thyme
Kosher salt

Save up any of the above items in a gallon-size plastic bag, keeping it in the freezer.

Once the bag is full, pull out the largest stock pot you have, and dump it all in (no need to thaw). Cover with filtered water and add any of the “Other” items you like. I usually just do a handful of peppercorns, and add the salt at the end. You could also do this in a slow cooker instead, and just cook on low overnight or all day. Both methods are great; I’ve just been doing the stove-top version lately as the smell of the broth cooking literally wakes me up in the middle of night when it’s in the slow cooker, ha. (I have a ridiculously sensitive sense of smell.)

Bring to a boil then reduce to very low simmer and cook for at least 4 hours, ideally 6 to 10. Add water as needed if it looks like it’s cooking down too much. By the end of cooking, the liquid should be a rich golden color, with some oil drops on top (this is a great sign and = flavor).

Strain all the liquid (broth) and discard the solids. Add salt to taste—if you think your broth is too strong, add additional water until it’s as you like. I usually don’t though, even it’s really rich, because I like to freeze it in this “condensed” form, and then just add more water once I’m actually using it to make soup or other things. It takes up less space in my freezer this way.

Allow to cool and then transfer to large glass jars or other storage containers; refrigerate until needed. If your jars develop a layer of fat on top after chilling, that is great (see photo below). This actually helps seal in the broth and allows it to keep in the fridge for longer (just don’t break the seal). I just mix this layer back into the broth once I’m ready to use.

If freezing, carefully pour the strained liquid into gallon size freezer bags. Lay flat on a baking tray and freeze until “sheets” are solid (see photo below), then just stack them in your freezer. Run under warm water to defrost.

Use your broth any and everywhere! (Or be super trendy and drink it plain.)

Final Broth