Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Boozing again: Oolong Vodka or Oolong Liqueur

If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty. – Japanese Proverb

It truly is this colour. I didn't enhance the photo. Golden deliciousness.
Ever on the outlook for the unusual, I recently stumbled upon several sites that offered booze recipes using tea leaves to infuse vodka. They sounded very interesting.

According to the (many) sources, one can use black, oolong or green tea leaves, or any other kind for that matter. Each will render a result as distinctly different as the teas themselves, one would assume. One of my favourites is Oolong which is a partially fermented tea.

Chinese Oolong lends an amazing complexity and depth of flavour to vodka. When made with good quality tea leaves, all tea-infused vodkas need no sweeteners or mixers. I used Fujian Oolong leaves, purchased from our local Asian grocery,  and my vodka came out a very nice golden “tea” colour. It started out an uninspiring off-white, but that changed quickly.

After my 24 hour "steeping" I finished the vodka as liqueur and it is truly wonderful. The nose is of tea and the taste is slightly sweet. After that the finish is warm from the alcohol. It’s quite…endearing. This liqueur may very well be one of my favourites. And the recipe is simplicity itself.

This infused vodka can have many uses. Serve straight up chilled, or mix it with the simple syrup for tea liqueur. Either is great in more complex cocktails. I bet you could even cook with it.

So grab your bottle of Stoli, Edina – and let's make some tea!

Oolong Vodka
40% alc. vol
6 tsp. Oolong tea leaves
750 ml vodka

Steep the leaves in room temperature vodka for 24 hours in a Mason jar. If you steep it any longer you run the risk of making the liqueur bitter, much like when tea is left too long on the stove. 

Shake the container every so often as you walk by. Strain out the leaves and chill. Serve as you would vodka. 

To finish as liqueur:
About 28% alc. vol
3/4 cup water
3/4 cup sugar

If making the vodka into liqueur, bring the sugar and water to a boil in a small saucepan. Let boil for 5 minutes. Allow the syrup to cool before adding to the flavoured vodka. Stir well and decant into bottles.

Here’s a few drinks in which you could use either the vodka or liqueur. Just remember if using the liqueur your drink will be slightly less alcoholic.

Fuzzy Tea
1 oz tea vodka
1 oz orange juice
splash of peach schnapps

Hot Apple Tea
2 oz tea vodka
2 oz hot apple cider
Use a cinnamon stick as a stir stick

1-1/2 oz tea vodka
1-1/2 oz cranberry juice
1/2 oz Cointreau
chopped ice
cranberry on a swizzle stick for garnish, or a twist of orange


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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I'm a cross reference!

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. – Charles Caleb Colton

I came across this in my travels just now and had to share it.

Lo and behold, I'm being adapted. The recipe cited is for my Homemade Dijon Mustard. It is so close it's not funny. I believe my 2 cups of white wine was substituted with 1-1/2 cups wine and 1/2 cup vinegar, and my oil was omitted altogether...

I certainly don't mind my recipe being used. I'm flattered. And apparently my recipe worked well enough to be reposted on this site. Their picture even looks identical to when I make mine. It's great tasting stuff.

Click to enlarge the image to see the reference.

I hope they actually tried it before writing their post...


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Recipe: Fiery Black Bean Shrimp

Anybody who believes that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach flunked geography. – Robert Byrne

Whoo. Pass the milk. This recipe is fiery!
Photo: Wiki CC
I thought when I was making this dish: “I can take some heat. No problem.” So I measured out what I knew the recipe should take – and then threw in more sriracha sauce. Just so you know, that ended up being almost double what I have written in the recipe below.

I now rue my decision. My lips have that tingly feeling that only hot chilli pepper can induce and small beads of sweat are on my forehead.

I'm no baby when it comes to spicy food, but sriracha sauce is not to be trifled with. This still tasted really good, though...once you got past the burn.

Why pass the milk you may ask? 
This cure works for any food that derives its heat from hot capsicums, or peppers.

From Wikipedia:
Capsaicinoids are the chemicals responsible for the "hot" taste of chilli peppers. They are fat soluble and therefore water will be of no assistance when countering the burn. The most effective way to relieve the burning sensation is with dairy products, such as milk and yogurt. 

A protein called casein occurs in dairy products which binds to the capsaicin, effectively making it less available to "burn" the mouth, and the milk fat helps keep it in suspension.

Sriracha is the American version of traditional Thai hot chilli sauce. Sriracha is a liquid-like paste of chilli peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt. That's all it is… so be wary.

I knew full well, and still ignored to my little inner voice. If you feel so inclined, increase it, but do so at your peril. You’ve been warned!

Fry the shrimp until almost done before adding the green
tops of the bok choy.
Fiery Black Bean Shrimp
Total time: 25-30 minutes  | Serves 4
7 dried chinese mushrooms, sliced
1 cup long grain rice
2 cups water
1-1/2 tbsp sesame oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1” fresh ginger, peeled and diced
5 tsp salted black beans (dry)
1 tsp sugar
1 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tbsp hoisin sauce
2 tbsp sou sauce
1 tbsp sriracha sauce (or more if desired)
6 baby bok choy, white sliced and greens chopped large
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped (optional)
1 tsp cracked black pepper
salt to taste

Toss the rice in well to combine. Then taste for salt.
Slice the mushrooms while still dry and add to the water in a small saucepan. Add some salt to the water. Bring to a boil and stir in the rice. 

Cover, reduce heat to simmer and let cook for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let sit for 5 more minutes.

As soon as the rice is covered, heat the oil in a wok and add the onion, garlic and ginger. Stir fry for a few minutes until the onion begins to soften slightly.

Mash the black beans and salt together with a fork. Add in the black beans and fry for a further minute until fragrant. Mix together the hoisin, soy and sriracha sauce and add to the wok.

Clean the shrimp and reserve in a bowl. Chop the bok choy by slicing the white part into large pieces, up to the green leaves. Chop the green parts separately.

Add the white part to the wok and stir fry for another minute. Then add the shrimp and cook until almost cooked through. Toss in the bok choy greens and cook until the shrimp are done.

Finally, add in the mushrooms and rice and toss everything together well. Finish by adding the pepper and cilantro (if using). Taste for salt and adjust. (Remember, the soy beans are salted and the soy is high in soduim.)

Serve with a little sesame oil drizzled on top.


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Monday, August 29, 2011

Recipe: Asian Salmon, Fragrant Rice and Bok Choy

Stung by the splendor of a sudden thought. – Robert Browning

Rice, veg, salmon... a fairly well balanced tasty meal.
You know, sometimes inspiration comes from the strangest places. This dinner came from three.

Dealing with the remainder of a bulk purchase: I was looking for something to do with the last pieces of “value pack” salmon I recently purchased. For those who may not know, “value pack” refers to buying in larger quantity at a lower price, not that the salmon was discounted… Kind of sounds like a racket when you read it, doesn’t it? Buy less, pay more. Why can’t it all be the same lower price?

Larder happenstance: As I looked in my cupboard my eye spied a bag of dried limes that I recently bought at a Middle Eastern grocery. I had promised myself I would use them more regularly. Dried limes are exactly as they sound – desiccated limes. Little brown balls. And they’re fantastic. 

Dried limes are typically used in Arabic and Persian cooking. They impart a wonderful citrusy taste in whatever recipe they're used. That taste would go fantastically well with salmon.

Required errand: I was on a mission to the local Asian grocery. I was low on several staples, one of which was rice wine vinegar. I’m still dealing with all my blueberries. I had decided to make blueberry tarragon vinegar and my recipe needed rice wine vinegar as an ingredient.

Salmon is quite delicious when cooked with Asian favours and I already had to go to the local Asian grocery. So I did as the Grinch, and I "puzzled and puzzled ‘til [my] puzzler was sore." I also Googled a few recipes posted by others for Asian Salmon to make sure I was on the right track. Out from the other end came this meal. Topping up my list with a couple additional needs, I toddled off to the Ca Hoa grocery.

This dinner turned out really well. The flavours are very nice and the balance is just right. Main flavours? Salmon, dried lime and rice wine vinegar, just as I hoped. They’re great together!

Asian Salmon, Fragrant Rice and Bok Choy
Prep: 1 hour  |  Cook: 20 min  |  Serves 4

4 salmon filet portions, with skin (about 150-200 g each)
4 tbsp sesame oil
3 tbsp rice wine vinegar
3 tbsp soy sauce
1-1/2 tbsp molasses (or brown sugar)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp onion powder
2 cups long-grain white rice
4 cups water
1 whole dried lime
8 baby bok choy, halved
1 hot green pepper, diced
1/2 tsp five spice powder
salt and pepper
cilantro, chopped for garnish

You can accomplish all three dishes simultaneously with a little planning. Marinate the salmon ahead of time, then about 25 minutes before dinnertime start the rice. The rest just falls into place.

Salmon (about 8 min, plus 1 hour marinade)
In a medium flat baking dish, whisk together 2 tbsp sesame oil, the rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, molasses, garlic, pepper and onion powder. Nestle the salmon, skin side up, into the marinade making sure it is well coated. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate on the counter for 1 hour.

Remove from the marinade and fry in a little sesame oil, skin side down first, then flip and finish cooking through. Total for each side should be about 4 minutes for 1” thickness. Remove the salmon and let sit while you fry the bok choy.

While the salmon is frying, simmer the marinade in a saucepan to cook and reduce slightly. It will thicken up quickly. Add a little more rice wine to thin it. This also boosts the flavour.

Rice (20 min)
Poke several holes in the lime with a fork to allow the water to access the interior. Place the water in a sauce pan with some salt and the dried lime. Bring to a boil, add the rice and stir. Cover and reduce the heat to simmer. Let cook for 15 minutes, depending on the directions on the rice you are using. Let sit five minutes.

Bok Choy (6 min)
Sprinkle the bok choy with five spice powder, salt and pepper. Add a little more oil to the pan and sauté the chopped hot pepper for 1 minute. Then add the bok choy, cut side down, and fry until the pieces start to brown slightly – about 3 minutes. Turn and brown on the other side.

To serve, place some rice down the centre of each plate. Arrange 4 bok choy halves per person per person on each side of the rice, and top with the salmon.

Drizzle with the reduced marinade and sprinkle with cilantro.


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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Recipe: Nova Scotia Blueberry Pie with Lattice Crust

Whats this? Blueberries! Oh, oh my G... Oh, thats better than sex! – Stewie Griffin (Family Guy TV show)

Not too bad, if I do say so myself...
I did a bad thing the other day. I bought a 5 lb box of Nova Scotia wild blueberries. They’re for sale in the grocery stores now, but not for long… They're also a hefty price in my opinion. I bet the extra money isn't making it's way back to the growers.

Why bad, you may ask? Have you ever tried to use a whole 5 lb box of blueberries with a family of two? It’s more difficult than it sounds. I’ve had several bowls with cream and sugar, a kéfir smoothie, and now this pie. It appears to me I actually have more than when I started. Are they multiplying? I doubt it, but they may as well be.

The problem with buying a whole box is not the volume per se, but the weight. You see, the sheer weight of the top blueberries tends to crush the ones on the bottom. You may have noticed if you have ever bought a box and after several (or a few) days the bottom gets wet. That’s what’s happening.

So you have to have a plan, or several plans, to tackle 5 lbs of blueberries. They’re SO good, and good for you, that’s it’s ridiculous to not buy in bulk. But if they go to waste I guess it’s not so much of a deal. So lay out a strategy. I have blueberry tarragon vinegar infusing now, and I'll probably freeze the rest. Check back in two weeks for the vinegar recipe. But come back sooner that that, too. 

The first major dent in my box (4 cups to be exact) is for this pie. If you’ve never had blueberry pie you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s one of most people’s favourites, especially with wild, fresh berries.

This is the crust just brought together before the water is added.
For the crust, I opted for a lattice. You don’t really have to, but it’s so nice to see the pools of purple/blue surrounded by crust that you don’t get with a solid pastry. If you do a solid lid make sure to vent it well so the steam and bubbling liquid has somewhere to go.

By the way, successful crust is a lazy person’s job. The less you handle it the flakier it will be. I learned how to make crust from my father. He was always in a hurry and his pies were all the better for it.

You should try this, with the lattice. I’ve illustrated how to do it as best as I could. Hopefully the pictures will help. Click on each image to enlarge it.

Blueberry Pie with Lattice Crust 
Your dough should be "ragged." Chilling it increases flakiness.
Pastry for double crust pie (see following)
4 cups wild blueberries
2/3 cup white sugar
7 tbsp cornstarch*
1 tsp cinnamon, ground
1/4 tsp allspice, ground
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp butter
a pinch of salt

Pastry for a double crust 9" pie:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup shortening or lard, chilled
1/2 cup ice water

* The amount of cornstarch above is for wild blueberries which tend to be "wetter." If using cultivated high bush berries, reduce to 5 to 6 tbsp.

To make the crust:
Combine the flour and salt in a bowl.  Cut in the lard or shortening until the size of peas – no smaller. Add most of the water and mix with a fork. 

Berries tossed with the sugar, spices and cornstarch.
Add the remainder if necessary to bring it together as a shaggy dough. Do not over work, or your crust will not be flaky. The dough benefits from 1/2 hour refrigeration, if you have the time. 

Divide in two, one part for the top another for the bottom.

To assemble the pie:
Place a cookie sheet in the oven and preheat to 400°F. Wash and pick through the blueberries, removing any leaves, and bits of stems.

Combine the sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon and allspice in a bowl. Add the blueberries and toss well to coat. Set aside.

Roll out the first half of the dough and fit it into a 9” pie pan. Trim the dough, but leave about 1” overhang. You will need this to seal the lattice.

Add in the coated blueberries. Pour the lemon juice over the berries. Add the pinch of salt and dot with bits of the butter.

The first two strips of dough.
Roll out the top crust and cut into 1/2” wide strips. Lay one strip down the centre of the pie. Lay another on top to make a cross shape. 

Weave the remaining strips into a lattice.
Add the strips out from that point leaving space to see the blueberries, weaving them under and over to make a “basket weave” pattern.

Trim off the ends to the same length as the bottom crust.

You probably won't use all the dough. I didn't as you can see.
Fold the bottom crust up over the lattice edges and press the top and bottom together. Flute the edge as you would a normal double crust pie. Sprinkle the top lattice with some additional sugar. It's a good thing.

Note why I used the cookie sheet. Blueberry pies almost always bubble up over.
Put the pie on the cookie sheet and bake in the centre of the oven for about 1 hour, until the blueberries are bubbly and the crust is golden. The cookie sheet will stop any unfortunate "accidents." Check progress at 50 minutes.

Let the pie cool for the filling to set up. It will slice and serve far easier once cooled.

If you wish, gild this lily by serving it with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or cream whipped with mascapone cheese and a little honey.


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Saturday, August 27, 2011

2nd Booze of the Week: Vanilla Brandy Liqueur

The focus on my appearance has really surprised me. I've always been a size 14 to 16, I don't care about clothes, I'd rather spend my money on cigarettes and booze. – Adele 

Vanilla planifolia. Photo: Wiki creative commons.
Vanilla is such a nice flavour. It’s almost indescribable. It does taste like nothing else. I suppose it could be said to taste like "ambrosia" or even “the nectar of the gods.”

Could you imagine capturing that at home in a liqueur, either for in mixed drinks with fruit juices or even a martini? Well you can…in two weeks from now if you start today.

You shouldn't use vanilla extract for this. You could, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near the same. You need a bean from the vanilla orchid. I have seen recipes that do use extract, but that would be cheating, wouldn't it. I can't imagine the result would be anywhere as good.

Photo; Wiki CC
Vanilla Orchid
from Wikipedia
Vanilla, the vanilla orchids, form a flowering plant genus of about 110 species in the orchid family (Orchidaceae). The most widely known member is the Flat-leaved Vanilla (V. planifolia), from which commercial vanilla flavoring is derived. It is the only orchid widely used for industrial purposes (in the food industry and in the cosmetic industry). Another species often grown commercially but not on an industrial scale is the Pompona Vanilla (V. pompona).

This evergreen genus occurs worldwide in tropical and subtropical regions, from tropical America to tropical Asia, New Guinea and West Africa. It was known to the Aztecs for its flavoring qualities. The genus was established in 1754 by Plumier, based on J. Miller. The name came from the Spanish word "vainilla", diminutive form of "vaina" (meaning "sheath"), which is in turn derived from Latin "vagina".

So there. I hope that last word isn’t blocked when I try to post this on facebook!

In the kitchen
Vanilla is used in three ways in the kitchen. The pod is used whole, or can be ground into a powder. The most common product is vanilla extract, which also can be created at home by putting two split vanilla bean pods in 1 cup of vodka, brandy or bourbon and steeping for at least a month. 

There is also artificial vanilla, but anyone who has ever compared the two knows they are as different as night and day. In actuality, different vanilla beans render substantially different results. It would be good for you to try several kinds to see what you like the best for cooking. My current favourite is Tahitian, followed closely by Madagascar. We were lucky enough to have a friend who brought us a bottle of Mexican from a trip. That was excellent as well.

Vanilla Brandy Liqueur
Time: 2 weeks
Makes about 750 ml
1-1/2 cups water
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (about 4” long)
375 ml brandy (1 pint)
1 L mason jar

Bring the water, sugars and vanilla bean to a boil in a saucepan. Boil, not simmer, for 5 minutes. Let the liquid cool to almost room temperature.

Combine with the brandy and place in the mason jar with the vanilla bean still in the liquid. Let sit for 2 weeks at room temperature.

After the steeping time, strain out the vanilla bean and decant into individual bottles. This would make wonderful gifts.

This is great in mixed drinks such as martinis, over ice cream, on top of bread pudding or tossed with fruit for a stunning dessert.

I threw the small amount you see in the picture into my coffee this morning. That may or may not have been a good idea… Breakfast of champions.


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Friday, August 26, 2011

Necessity: Bound Breading for Meat & 5 Minute Corn

Out of the frying pan, into the fire. – Tertullian (Roman Author)

Moist, delicious and corny.
Today rather than a complicated recipe I thought I would show you a technique that many people don’t know or don’t use. It’s called “bound breading” and it’s used as a coating for frying meats and fish. It should be mentioned that I have also used it for Tofu Parmigiana (search “tofu.”)

Bound breading, for the most part, is an old country cooking method. It also has another name—Coating l’Anglaise—which despite being a fancier moniker doesn't mean it's entirely positive. As Thomas Campbell famously wrote: “In England there are sixty different religions, and only one sauce.” So you can see he didn’t think much of English cuisine. Others still don't.

Egg/milk and bread crumbs in separate plates. My egg/milk is
a little foamy. I had to let it sit.
I take exception to his derision, because bound breading has many applications. One is its ability to help seal in the juices of whatever is bound so it doesn’t dry out. It’s perfect for lean cuts of meat, like pork loin, and various fishes. (It's also kin to "chicken fried steak," which can be a heart attack on a plate.)

I used this bound breading on boneless pork loin chops. They’re notoriously easy to cook until dry. There’s hardly any fat at all through the meat, so anything you can do to increase your odds against that is a good thing.

Essentially bound breading is accomplished by mixing together egg, milk, salt and pepper in one dish, and putting flour, bread crumbs, corn meal or rolled oats in another, the choice depending on your meat. Corn meal is best for whole smelts or trout, and rolled oats are best on haddock fillets.

Simply dip the meat in the egg, and then in the coating. If you want a thicker coating repeat the procedure. That’s called double bound breading, obviously...

Step 1: dip on the egg/milk to coat.
There’s two secrets to making good bound breading. The first is to not make your egg/milk mixture frothy when you mix it. Frothy egg makes for uneven bread coating. The second is to pat your meat dry. This helps the egg coating adhere and thus your coating.

Contrary to what others may say, you don’t need a lot of oil to fry the meat. I used about 2 tablespoons and everything turned out just fine.

I have to admit a mistake I made. Well, not really a mistake… I was doing this technique from memory and I doubled the amount of egg and milk, so I had a lot of waste. The recipe lists the right amount for 4 pork loin steaks.

Corn on the cob, the right way
Before I go on to the recipe I want to talk briefly about corn on the cob. Most people boil it “to death.” Perfect corn on the cob only takes 5 minutes. Any more time and it becomes tough and loses some of its sweetness. 

Put a few inches of water in a pot (you don’t have to cover the corn) with a healthy amount of salt. Bring the water to a boil, add your corn, cover and cook. In 5 minutes you’re on the table. Sere with lots of butter, of course.

So here we go.

Step 2: coat with bread crumbs.
Bound Breading on Pork Loin Chops
Prep: 10 min  |  Cook: 12-14 min  |  Serves 4
4 pork loin chops, boneless, about 1” thick
1/2 cup milk
1 egg
1-1/2 cups dry bread crumbs (I used Italian pre-flavoured)
salt and pepper
2 tbsp vegetable oil
instant read thermometer (you really should own one...)

Pat your meat dry with paper towel and set aside. Heat the oil in a large frying pan on medium heat. Medium heat helps you control how fast the crust browns.

Crack the egg into a dinner or pie plate. Add the milk and a little salt and pepper. Gently mix until combined. Don’t be overzealous and make it foamy.

Place the bread crumbs in another plate. If using plain crumbs add some salt and pepper. You can also add herbs and/or parmesan cheese.

One at a time, dip the meat into the egg and coat both sides. Then dip each piece into the bread crumbs. Take the coated pork and place in the hot pan. Quickly repeat with the remaining pieces of meat. Do not crowd in the pan. You may have to cook the pork in two batches.

Step 3: Fry. See the useful tip in the directions.
Fry the pork until well browned on one side, about 3-4 minutes. Then flip and let brown on the other side.

After this time the pork will still be underdone. Take the top of a large pot and place directly on the meat. This acts as steamer and slows down the browning, but lets the meat cook through.

Cook until the temperature on an instant read thermometer reads about 168°. There is no set time for this as the thickness of your pork will dictate cooking time. 

Pork cooks to 170° for health safety reasons. Internal temperature will creep up the extra two degrees as it sits. Bound breading plus the pot cover method reduces your chances of drying out the meat. The meat you see in the picture at top was “just done” and still very moist.

Serve with corn on the cob, and other side dishes if desired.


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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Booze of the Week: Bitter Cherry Liqueur

Break open a cherry tree and there are no flowers, but the spring breeze brings forth myriad blossoms. – Ikkyu Sojun 

Photo: groovysuvi, Flickr ccl
I don't know if this is a good sign or not. I'm posting about booze again before the weekend.

Actually, in my defense, I've had this liqueur aging for a whole month. And not aging inside me but in a bottle. Will wonders never cease?

Photo: D H Wright, Flickr ccl
This recipe is an amalgam of a few recipes, plus some good old fashoined experience that I now have firmly under my belt. 

This is the deepest red liqueur I've made so far. So when I make pomegranate (around Christmas) it has something to live up to.

Actually, chokecherry will probably be darker, but I'm not sure if I'll make a liqueur out of them this year. The season’s nearly at its peak. There's always next year.

This is a slightly bitter liqueur. The addition of the cherry pits adds a very "tart/pucker" to the final product. If you're after a more sweet liqueur either halve the number of pits or leave them out altogether.

If you want, throw some of this liqueur
into chocolate ganache and make truffles!
Photo: ulterior epicure, Flickr ccl
I find the exceptionally sweet liqueurs a bit "cloying." The addition of the pits certainly cuts down the sweet factor. There is the same ratio of fruit to sugar syrup as is usual in my liqueur recipes but the result is substantially different.

Cherry pits are included in many recipes to add their particular bitter flavor. Pickled Cherries leave them in, as do Brandied Cherries. 

There's a recipe I saw for Cherry Pit Ice Cream that sounded more than a little interesting too, in case you were planing on throwing those pits away. That recipe ca be found at

If you've heard that stone fruit pits are poisonous, take a read here: 

Remember – we're not crushing the pits to use the fruit inside the stone. Just don't sit there and crack them open like walnuts. That's not our intent anyway.

Cherry pits are dried and ground into a Mid-eastern spice called Mahleb, so they can't be all bad.

Do the math. There's 60-80 pits in a recipe that makes 1L. They are not damaged in the infusion. Essentially we're using the outer stone, not the fleshy seed. As Julia Child said: "All things in moderation, including moderation."

The choice to include them is entirely up to you.

Bitter Cherry Liqueur
Makes about 750ml to 1 L
60-80 very ripe fresh cherries, with pits*
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1” wide piece of lemon rind
2 cups vodka (potato vodka preferred)

Place the cherries in a medium sized ceramic bowl and mash slightly. Heat the sugar, water and lemon rind in a saucepan until just boiling.

Remove from the heat and pour over the cherries. Mash the berries again, cover with plastic warp and place in the refrigerator for 5 days to extract the flavours.

After 5 days, strain the mixture through a jelly bag or fine piece of cloth. This will take a while, but a sieve isn't fine enough. You need to get out as much liquid as possible but leave behind any pulp.

Once clear, or fairly clear, or as clear as you're willing to stand, combine with the vodka. Stir well and place in a bottle. Keep cool and/or in the dark so the colour doesn't bleach out. It shouldn't, but it might. It's very, very red. Your infusion should last for at least 1 month, if you let it.

* To make the liqueur less “bitter” reduce the number of pits you include in your infusion. I used all the pits and it wasn’t exceedingly bitter, but it wasn’t terribly sweet, which I found very palatable. Note all the dire warnings in the intro text as well…


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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gardening: The Northern Catalpa

God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars. – Martin Luther 

Catalpa speciosa, up close and personal. Photo: Mean and Pinchy, Flockr ccl
Can you believe this is a flower on a tree? I suppose, horse chestnut does look kind of the same, but to me these resemble some sort of Azalea or Rhododendron. They’re absolutely beautiful. It’s a shame the flowers don’t last longer than they do.

Photo: carlfbagge, Flickr ccl
The blossoms you are looking at are from the Catalpa tree and those blooms are usually gone in about one week. Catalpa speciosa is a genus of flowering plants in the trumpet vine family, Bignoniaceae, that grows in the warm temperate regions of North America, the Caribbean, and East Asia. A tree that’s a member of a vine family… how interesting.

Catalpa goes by many other names including northern catalpa, hardy catalpa, western catalpa, cigar tree, and catawba-tree. It is native to Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee in the US. Because of its hardiness it is also used north of the border in Canada. Catalpa speciosa is hardy to USDA Zones 4-8.

In Halifax (Zone 6) there are a few places where Catalpa has actually been planted as a street tree. Those trees were in flower about two or three weeks ago. They’re quite a stunning thing to stumble across on a walk. I can only imagine what a grove of them would be like.

The seed pods hang beneath the leaves. Photo: pcgn7, Flickr ccl
Catalpas are medium-sized deciduous trees, which mean they loose their leaves in the Autumn. The bark is brownish grey with hard, raised ridges. The leaves are quite large and heart shaped, some being in excess of 12” long. 

The leaves don’t really colour much in the Autumn. If they do it’s only because the frost has hit them and then they turn yellowy brown.

The flowers are about 2-3” across, very white with yellow and purple stripes and dots. They're somewhat reminiscent of the interior of a Foxglove. The flowers are borne in panicles of between 10 to 30 individual blooms. It’s quite a show. And after the blossoms come the “beans!” 

The fruit of the catalpa resemble vanilla bean pods on steroids. They begin green and purple, turning to brown as the seeds inside mature. They can easily grow between 10" and 16” long. For added ornamental display, they dangle beneath the leaves. Inside the pods are packed with numerous flat seeds surrounded by a papery “wing.”

The trunk and branches tend to grow crooked.
Photo: Rebecca - Lee, Flickr ccl
Catalpa is usually grown as an ornamental tree. It prefers moist, high pH soil and full sun, but has been able to grow almost anywhere in North America that it has been planted.

The wood is soft like white pine, and quite light in weight. It also is resistant to rot. In the 1920s and 30s Catalpa was encouraged as a quick growing source of fence posts in some southern States of the USA. They soon learned in warmer conditions it can be a little invasive. 

It is more commonly used now in the production of furniture and interior house items, due to its beautiful grain. 

Northern Catalpa does have some less than serious issues. My feeling is if you can deal seasonally with an apple tree, you can deal with a catalpa.

Catalpa doesn’t really like the idea of growing straight. If being grown for lumber, this makes sawing a challenge. 

The second problem is all those seeds and blossoms. The spent blooms tend to flutter away (like the apple), but the long pods open up while still on the tree and blow seeds to the four winds, making clean-up a bit of a chore. The seed pods then dutifully drop from the tree so you have to clean them up as well. 

The third is it’s penchant for fast growth which is why they were grown in the South in the 1920s. A mature Catalpa can easily crowd out, and shade, other plants in smaller gardens so leave room for its full size.

Photo: lowjumpingfrog, Flickr ccl
This last problem I haven’t seen in practice here. The street trees in Halifax seem to hover around 20 feet high by about 15 wide. That's a manageable size for a tree with blossoms as beautiful as these.

Catalpa are a gorgeous specimen and bloom at a most opportune time. Early August in Nova Scotia is a time when all other blooming trees are well on their way to bearing fruit. So the Catalpa could be a good specimen plant to ensure mid-Summer garden enjoyment.

Just try finding it in a garden centre… That’s possibly the most troublesome aspect of this beautiful tree. This year I’m going to collect seeds – again...


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