Start with about two gallons of birch twigs. Black birch, also known as cherry or spice birch, is abundant throughout New Jersey. To forage, look for their distinctive, thin, smooth trunks, whitish bark and dark lenticels (the horizontal lacerations on the tree’s surface). When in doubt, break off a branch and take a whiff. The bark emits a minty scent.
Once you’ve foraged, rinse and chop your twigs, placing four quarts of the chopped birch into a 5-gallon pot. Meanwhile, make simple syrup by dissolving 8 pounds of brown sugar in a pot with 4 gallons of water. For a darker, richer birch beer, substitute molasses for brown sugar.
Once the sugar has dissolved completely, set the water to boil for 10 minutes. Pour the simple syrup over the twigs, adding a halved, scraped vanilla bean for flavor. Boil the mixture for 30 minutes, then strain it into a new bowl. Once the strained mixture cools to 75 degrees, add a half teaspoon of ale yeast, stir gently, and let sit for 15 minutes.
Pour your birch beer into glass bottles and cap them. Let stand at room temperature for 36 to 48 hours, depending on how much carbonation you prefer, then refrigerate. Avoid a place where the bottles might be disturbed. Your birch beer can be stored and enjoyed for up to a month. —Lauren Yobs
Although it’s only recently been touted as a superfood, kombucha has been around for centuries, valued as a cure-all for everything from asthma to depression to circulatory disease. Kombucha takes months to brew at home, but like yogurt or yeasted bread, a bit of the previous batch is all that is needed to brew subsequent batches.
The fizzy drink is made from black tea and sugar, along with distilled vinegar and the key ingredient, a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, which can be purchased at health food stores or online). The process begins with a liter of sweet tea. Once the tea has cooled, add white vinegar and the SCOBY, which will be activated in the mixture over the next 30 days. Finally, the fermentation begins and the SCOBY interacts with the sweet tea/vinegar mixture to create a world of gut-friendly active microorganisms.
Repeat the same process three more times for 30 days each, adding the activated SCOBY to progressively larger batches of the mixture, until you reach a gallon in volume. That’s your first drinkable batch. Be sure to refrigerate it.
Always keep the activated SCOBY and each progressive batch at room temperature. Also, it is vital to keep hands and containers sterile.
Once you have your initial potable batch, you won’t need to repeat the arduous process. Simply start with two cups of the previous batch—and continue creating and enjoying your homemade kombucha. The drink can be somewhat bitter, but subsequent batches can be flavored with fruit, fresh-squeezed juice or edible flowers.—LY
Whipping up a batch of homemade dog treats is a fun kitchen activity for the whole family, four-legged members included. There’s no baking necessary, and all the ingredients—crumbled bacon, bacon grease, peanut butter, plain yogurt, applesauce and old-fashioned rolled oats—are probably right in your fridge and pantry.
Cook some strips of bacon for the family and set aside a few pieces. Add equal parts yogurt, peanut butter and applesauce to a large mixing bowl and pour the slightly cooled grease on top. Stir until smooth. Add the bacon bits and the oats, then knead the mixture into a dough. Add as much of the oats as necessary for the dough to reach a firm consistency that can be shaped. Roll into bite-size balls and begin rewarding your dog with these sure-to-please snacks. The treats can be stored in the freezer or fridge. Other possible add-ins for your pooch’s picky palate include shredded cheese, puréed vegetables and mashed, overripe bananas. Get creative—your pup will love you for it.—Joanna Buffum
Long before hunting techniques were honed and seeds intentionally sown, humans were able to recognize and collect safe plants to eat. We still can. Here are four easy plants to forage.
Dandelions (early spring): Though generally regarded as pesky lawn weeds, dandelions are tasty and packed with nutrients, including beta-carotene (which we convert into vitamin A), vitamin C, iron, fiber, potassium and calcium. Look for dandelions in open meadows or even in your own yard—as long as you haven’t applied pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer. Avoid picking dandelions near sidewalks and streets, since those are likely to be chemically treated. All parts of the plant can be whipped into countless meals. The distinctive toothed leaves, which fan in a circle around the stem, can be sautéed or used in salads like other leafy greens. The yellow flowers can be coated in egg, tossed with flour and pan-fried, or baked into bread and cookies. The roots can be boiled or roasted and eaten much the same way as carrots.
Violets (early spring): These pops of purple appear in shady patches just as the season starts to warm. As with dandelions, only forage from areas that have not been chemically treated. Simply pinch the small purple flowers and pull them out of the ground; the tiny stems are edible too. Violets make a colorful addition atop salads and can be mixed with simple syrup to create a pretty lavender tint for cocktails, pancakes or oatmeal.
Wineberries (mid- to late summer): It’s likely you’ve seen a wineberry bush without knowing its name. This invasive species of raspberry, originally from Asia, is found all over the state in thick, thorny clumps. The berries first appear in yellow, hairy clusters; by July, they begin to ripen and range from bright red to dark purple. They can be popped right in your mouth without washing or preparing.
Chicken of the Woods (summer and fall): Mushrooming is a learned art. Since there are so many varieties and many are poisonous, foraging fungi is best done alongside a seasoned expert. Chicken of the Woods, a bright orange mushroom that grows in clusters on oak trees, stumps and logs, is one of the easiest for novices to safely identify (part of the foolproof four, along with puffballs, morels and chanterelles). No surprise: It tastes just like chicken. Simply slice at the base (there is no stem), give a good rinse and cook as desired. —JB
Preserving food is economical, sustainable and healthy. It promotes eating local and in season all year long. Before Vineland tinsmith John Landis Mason patented the Mason jar in 1858, most families relied on smoking, drying, salting or wax sealing to preserve their food. Mason’s trademark zinc lid and threaded bands made at-home preserving cheap and accessible for consumers.
High-acid foods—fruit spreads, pickles, salsas—are the easiest for amateur canners to tackle first. Their recipes include natural preservatives like sugar, some form of acid (usually citric acid or vinegar), and pectin, a carbohydrate and thickening agent found in fruits like apples and cranberries. Pectin can be purchased in liquid or powdered form.
While there are many types of canning, the water-bath method is best for beginners. You will need a large, covered sauce pot (deep enough to fully immerse the jars under at least an inch of water); a metal rack to suspend the jars inside the pot; a thermometer; and a jar lifter (special tongs to safely remove jars from hot water). These can be purchased in a kit or separately.
Be sure to follow all safety precautions; improperly preserved foods can cause botulism or other food-borne illnesses. Jars should be cleaned and warmed in hot water (not boiling) before using. This prevents the glass from cracking when it comes into contact with hot foods (such as steaming jam or tomato sauce). Never reuse lids—the seal only works once.
Leaving the proper amount of headspace, or room between the food and the top of the jar, is important to ensure the best seal as the food inside the jar expands. In general, you should leave:
✸ ¼ inch for jams, jellies and other spreads.
✸ ½ inch for tomatoes, fruits and other high-acid foods.
✸ 1 inch for low-acid foods like meats and stocks (use a pressure canner; for advanced preservers only).
After filling the warmed jar to the right level with the prepared food, run the handle of a wooden spoon or chopstick (referred to as a bubble remover) along the inside in a full circle a few times. This allows any trapped air bubbles to float to the surface. Wipe the rim and threads clean before securing the lid on each jar.
Position the jars on the metal rack so that water can fully surround each jar. Next, place the rack inside the pot and cover with water. Put the lid on the pot and bring to a boil for as long as the recipe indicates. Once the jars are ready, remove from the water and place on a towel.
After allowing to cool for 12 to 24 hours, remove the bands and attempt to lift the lids by hand. If they stick, the seal is good. Store in a cool, dry place. —JB
It looked like fun when Lucille Ball did it, but you don’t have to stomp barefoot in a vat of gooshy grapes to make wine. Instead, you can head to the Brewer’s Apprentice in Freehold—or a similar supplier—and buy yourself a $110 winemaking kit. In it you will find the ingredients you need to make 6 gallons of wine: juice (choose from several varieties), additives and yeast. An equipment kit—two vessels (one for primary fermentation, another for secondary fermentation), transferring equipment, corks and a corker (the thing that drives the cork into the bottle)—runs another $100. Buy it all and you’re on your way to reaping a little more than two cases of your own fine (maybe) wine. The process takes about eight weeks, says Brewer’s Apprentice co-owner Jo Ellen Ford. Need guidance? The store has an on-site winemaking room where, for $215, including juice and supplies, the staff will help you. Prefer to learn from wine connoisseurs? New Jersey wine schools such as Grapes N’ Barrels (newjerseywinemaking.com) in Sayreville and Grape Beginnings (grapebeginningswine.com) in Eatontown offer detailed (if pricier) on-site learning and winemaking opportunities. “They’re true experts,” says Ford, “and the wine coming out of these places, plus the kits like the ones you can buy at my store, keep getting better and better.—Tammy La GorceClick here to leave a comment