harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Spark

Over the winter, I blended up a batch of za’atar (this recipe from 101 Cookbooks) for the first time, and both Henry and I loved it. The bright, lemony flavor of sumac is a perfect match for the earthy, herby flavor of dried thyme. We sprinkled the heck out of everything with it: eggs, buttered naan, bean-grain salads, etc.. When I saw that the recipe called for sumac, I simply went to the local health food store and bought a little baggie.

I’ve always know in the back of my head that the patch of spindly trees with resinous, fuzzy stems in front of my parents’ house was sumac, but I literally never thought about it or gave it a second glance in 31 years with the exception of noticing its flaming foliage in the fall. That’s why I was completely caught off guard a couple weeks ago when Henry casually asked if that sumac was ready to harvest. I had never connected the trees with the reddish, powdery stuff I bought at the store. The day Henry brought it up, however, I did a little googling and taste testing and realized that indeed the fruit from my parents’ trees was not only edible but delicious.

The trees in my parents’ yard are staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, not to be confused with poison sumac, a rare shrub that grows in wet, boggy areas and produces white berries. In the summer, staghorn sumac trees have mature, showing, conical fruit clusters that are bright red to red-brown in color. If you want to harvest sumac, it’s best to do it sooner rather than later because heavy rains can wash out the flavor potency out of the fruits.

Tama Matsuaka Wong has a good write up of how to harvest and process sumac here, and since I had no idea what I was doing, I mostly followed her advice. 

harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Sparkharvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Sparkharvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Spark

First I got up on a ladder and clipped a bunch of sumac cones, avoiding ones that were already brown and funky looking. The branches of the trees and the cones of staghorn sumac are both sticky to the touch, and if you lick your fingers after squeezing the fruit, you’ll get an über lemony shock to the tongue.

harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Sparkharvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Sparkharvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Spark

The flavorful part of the sumac fruit is the hairy covering on the seeds.

harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Spark

Whole sumac cones can be used fresh in a refreshing beverage referred to as “sumacade“, but I was more interested in processing the fruits for spice, so I broke up the clusters and put them on trays in a food dehydrator for about 48 hours until the individual drupes were no longer very sticky and were easy to pick off the little stems.

harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Spark

I spent a meditative hour or so cleaning my stash of stems. I’m not sure this step was totally necessary, but I did it anyway. Then i processed small batches of the drupes in a blender(Did I ever tell y’all I got a blender?), checking their progress often, until many of the seeds were bald but not too many of them were crushed. (I don’t think a food processor would be the right tool for this job because it would likely just pulverize the seeds instead of separating the fruit from the seeds.)

harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Spark

After that, Henry’s awesome aunt who was visiting stirred and pressed the sumac business in a NOT-superfine mesh strainer.

harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Sparkharvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Spark

My resulting sumac spice does not really look like the pure red powdery stuff from the store. It does include crushed bits of seed, but I don’t mind because it tastes just like the stuff from the store, and the added debris doesn’t add too much unpleasant texture to the spice. harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Sparkharvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Sparkharvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward SparkBecause I didn’t struggle forever to clean the seeds of every speck of fruit, I decided to save them and the adhering sumac bits for a couple batches of sumacade. I’ll probably have to use a high sumac-to-water ratio because a good amount of the flavoring has been removed, but that doesn’t really matter if I’m just using up a byproduct of my spice-harvesting experiment.

So, have any of you tried this before? Are there any great sumac-centric recipes that I must try? If so, please share your experiences and/or suggestions!



Some Things

August 8, 2014 · 4 comments

Radke's Blueberries in Corvallis, OR // Wayward SparkLately I’ve been…


Tartine’s Salted Chocolate Rye Cookies from Apt. 2B Baking Co.

Plum Upside Down Cake with Rosemary Caramel from Sweet Paul

Heavy Duty Granola from David Lebovitz

Classic Dill Pickles from the Wayward Spark archive

South Indian Dal from Leela Cyd on A Cup of Jo

Tomato Jam from Food in Jars

Wishing I were eating:

Apricot Pistachio Squares from Smitten Kitchen

Lemongrass Miso Soup from 101 Cookbooks

Spiced Plum Bars from 5 Second Rule

Green Goddess Sandwiches from The Bojon Gourmet

Parmesan Rosemary Biscotti from My Name is Yeh


lots of water (My aunt in San Francisco made fun of me when I turned down all her beverage offerings in favor of water. I really do love water, but because I’m a weirdo, I prefer it cold without ice.)

Wishing I were drinking:

all the cocktails on the new-to-me blog cider & rye


102 miles in July and 33 miles in the last week (In an effort to get in shape for a half marathon this fall, either the Runaway Pumpkin or Silver Falls, I signed up for a training plan on RunKeeper, a running app that I have on my phone. I chose a plan called “Sub 2:15 Half Marathon”, which really didn’t sound that ambitious considering I ran my first half marathon in 2 hours 18 minutes. After pushing through a couple weeks of training runs, I slowly began to realize that this plan is CRAZY hard and way more serious than I thought. So far, I’m sticking to it, though it might kill me.)


a million pounds of blueberries at Radke’s (photo above) to eat fresh and freeze for the winter


Game of Thrones (My brother in law turned me on to it. I obsessively buzzed through the first three, but now I’m trying to be a little more laid back getting through the fourth, partly because I have a million other things to do and partly to stretch it out as long as possible. I’m still trying to decide if it’s worth dedicating another huge chunk of my life to watching the Game of Thrones TV show.)

Following on Instagram:

@frolicblog (Frolic) because Chelsea, whom I’ve met several times in Portland, is off on a European adventure of undetermined duration, and every. single. one. of her photos is so so pretty.

@sternmanrule (5 Second Rule) because Cheryl’s silly food puns make me laugh every time.

@kgfarmer (Kitchen Garden Farm) for Tim’s gritty farm photos

@bakerhands and @papercranefarm (Tara and Joe are a couple.) for beautiful baking and more farm photos

@nancyr10 (Nancy whom I’ve known since I was about 11) for Oregon adventure photos

@davidlebovitz (David Lebovitz) for beautiful food photos as well as quirky French miscellany

@tarasgroi (Tara Sgroi) for cool short videos

Listening to:

an explanation of the Earned Income Tax Credit on Planet Money

a first-hand account of surviving the giant earthquake and tsunami in Japan from an American engineer who was INSIDE the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant when the earthquake started on The Moth (This is one of few podcasts that I would not recommend listening to while exercising. It’s pretty emotional.)

an interview with Dan Savage on Death, Sex, and Money

the new-to-me podcast The Memory Palace

this interview in which the granddaughter of the original owner of the Washington Redskins says it’s time to change the team name

my Pandora station

Planning for: 

a local camping trip with the kids (A couple weeks ago, I got the hare-brained idea to solo parent an epic camping trip to Glacier National Park and back. While I’m still convinced that I COULD do it, I’m realizing that August is just too damn busy to take off for a week without a ton of planning, more than I’m really willing to commit to right now. Instead, I think we’re going to do two nights at Alsea Falls. I think a couple days of splashing in the river, reading books, cooking over a fire, and gazing at the stars will do us good.)

Thinking about:

This situation…

I was hanging out in my mom’s booth at the farmers’ market when Charlotte’s eyes got wide, and she said, “LOOK, MAMA, A NINJA!” while pointing to the crowd. I turned and suddenly realized that she was pointing directly and obviously at a (presumably Muslim) woman wearing a black head scarf that covered everything but her eyes. She saw us, I smiled apologetically, and she didn’t seem upset by the attention. She was too far away for me to mumble an explanation, and honestly I’m not sure what I would have said anyway. I’m of the mindset that there are very few things that a small child could say that could be considered truly offensive, and I hope she felt the same way. I would imagine that, like it or not, a well covered Muslim woman in Corvallis probably gets a considerable number of small children pointing and staring at her on a regular basis.


canned plum sauce // Wayward Spark

Hey, local folks! You’re invited:

It’s harvest time. Let’s celebrate!

Marys River Food Swap August Meeting

7:00 pm Thursday, August 21, 2014

at the Marys River Grange Hall (24707 Grange Hall Rd. Philomath, OR)

Please RSVP to the Facebook Event Page or email camille@waywardspark.com

You bring:

up to 6 jars of food + an extra for sampling if you have one

a potluck dish or beverage to share

a pen or pencil (We’ll have extras.)

a couple bucks to donate to the Grange

About food swap items…

–Possibilities include but are not limited to jams, jellies, marmalades, chutneys, relishes, salsas, pickles, pestos, spreads, sauces, extracts, beverages, infused alcohols, dehydrated fruits and vegetables, preserved fruits and vegetables, flavored salts, spice blends, granolas, ice creams, or…

–Each item should be at least 3-5 servings. That means an offering of homemade mustard would be considerably smaller than a contribution of apple cider.

–It’s slightly easier logistically if you bring 6 of the same item, but if you want to or need to bring several different foods, that’s okay.

–Food safety is very important for an event like this, so please don’t cut corners. Unless you are an experienced canner, please follow a recipe from a reputable source, and boil canned goods for the full recommended time period. If you have any concerns about food safety, OSU Extension Service has great online resources about food preservation here. We reserve the right to disallow items that don’t appear to be properly preserved.


–Food items do not necessarily need to be shelf stable, so feel free to bring something that needs to be refrigerated or can sit out on the counter (especially if you’re unsure about your canning abilities).

–You probably won’t get your jars back (but you will probably bring home new ones), so plan accordingly.

How the swapping works…

Each person will set out their food items on a table with a description card (provided at the event). After surveying the goods, the group will form a circle around the table, and one at a time, everyone will choose one item until the last person picks. Then the last person will start a second round of selection in reverse order and so on until each person has chosen as many items as he or she brought.

There will be no bartering or bidding on items, and everyone has equal chances to get what he or she wants, even the person who brings the least popular items. (It’s inevitable. Don’t feel bad if it’s you.)

You do not need to bring food swap items to attend, but it will be more fun if you do.

Feel free to invite friends, but please RSVP. Attendance will be capped at 60 participants.

I hope to see you there!



Red Ranger chickens at Gathering Together Farm // Wayward Spark

My friend Lisa Hargest (you may have seen her in this post) came over for dinner a while back, and we got to talking about the state of things at Gathering Together Farm, the place where Henry and I worked for years and now the place where Lisa has worked for years. She told us about a project that she instigated to raise a bunch of meat chickens along with our friends Joelene Jebbia (seen here) and Paula House (seen here) to be cooked and eaten at the farm’s thrice weekly crew lunch.

I wrote about crew lunch and the farm owners’ ethic behind it here, but basically the farm cooks feed an insanely large amount of hot, nutritious food to an insanely hungry crowd (sometimes 50+) of farmworkers every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Lisa, Joelene, and Paula are not vegetarians, but like some of the other GTF employees, they try to adhere to certain high standards when it comes to the meat that they consume. In the context of a somewhat mass-produced meal, however, it’s not always easy to source affordable but humanely raised meats. This spring, they decided that one way to address this situation would be to raise chickens on the farm specifically for farm lunch. They already had a space to do it, the infrastructure needed to house and feed chickens (from an experiment in raising chickens to sell about 10 years ago), willing chicken stewards, and the full support of the farm’s owners.

The first batch broiler chickens they raised were ‘Cornish Cross’, the fast-growing, huge-breasted, delicious-but-dumb breed that is standard in the commercial poultry industry. The ‘Cornish Cross’ chicks cost $1.90 each, and out of the 100 they bought, 90 survived to butchering age of about seven weeks.

For the second batch, they’re trying ‘Red Rangers’, a somewhat slower growing heritage breed that exhibits much more bird-like behavior and makes for a great forager. The ‘Red Rangers’ cost $2.10 per chick, but so far, none have died. Unlike ‘Cornish Cross’, ‘Red Rangers’ take about 12 weeks to reach butchering size. During that time, however, they eat quite a bit less than ‘Cornish Cross’ per bird per day, so in the end, Lisa figures that the feed costs for the two batches of chickens will be roughly the same. The ‘Red Rangers’ also have more leg and thigh meat and less breast meat than the ‘Cornish Cross’, so culinarily the two breeds have somewhat different applications.

My friend Chris Hansen of Mosaic Farm (who for some dumb reason I haven’t yet profiled on this blog, but trust me, he’s a super interesting, stand up guy) caught wind of GTF’s chicken plans, and he proposed a trade. He would provide his specially blended non-GMO, locally sourced, freshly milled chicken scratch (more details about his feed blends and availability here) at cost in exchange for the opportunity to eat crew lunch whenever he wanted to at Gathering Together. Everyone agreed that this was a terrific idea, so the chickens have spent their whole lives eating nothing but Willamette Valley bugs, grass, wheat, peas, and a small quantity of nutritional supplements. Parts of Mosaic farm are literally adjacent to Gathering Together fields, so it’s pretty easy for Chris to stop in when the lunch bell rings, and he usually eats with the GTF crew once or twice a week.

When the chicken-rearing plan was concocted, Lisa just assumed that, come butcher time, the crew would do the deed themselves. There were quite a few folks on the farm with at least some experience killing, plucking, and gutting chickens, but as the birds grew and the summer workload of farm duties increased to exhausting levels, butchering in-house held less and less appeal. That’s when Lisa, Joelene, and Paula made the decision to pass the task on to professionals. Fortunately, they knew just the right people for the job, Rachel Prickett of Provenance Farm (profiled here, here, and here on Wayward Spark) and her team at Oregon Mobile Poultry Processing. Rachel’s fledgling business uses Provanance Farm’s existing mobile chicken butchering trailer to travel around Western Oregon, processing medium to large batches of birds on-farm at a competitive price per animal. (For more info on custom poultry processing call 541-250-0102). The GTF chicken stewards figured that paying Rachel and her gang to do the dirty work would save them a tremendous amount of hassle while yielding a more attractive, better packaged product faster and cheaper than if the paid-by-the-hour farm crew of amateur butchers did the work themselves. Lisa explained to me that making the decision to outsource the processing was like taking a weight off her chest, and she never regretted the decision.

If the farm chef is cooking a chicken-based lunch in the summer for the full crew, she would probably use up to 10 chickens per meal, so 190 birds will only last through 19 or 20 meals (more meals for a smaller winter crew). Considering the fact that the farm serves 156 crew lunches per year, these farm-raised chickens will make up a significant portion of the protein served but nowhere near a majority. That wasn’t really the goal for this project, though. Lisa, Joelene, and Paula just wanted to make an effort to start somewhere and do a little bit better than before.

For me, the story of these chickens and how they were raised embodies the collaborative spirit of some of the most ethically-minded farmer folks that I know. The birds will be cared for by compassionate people, fed the highest quality food available, allowed to run free-ish on healthy land, butchered quickly and humanely by knowledgeable professionals, cooked to perfection by a skilled chef, and eaten by hungry, hardworking folks who appreciated the sustenance. I don’t think it gets any better than that.

Red Ranger chickens at Gathering Together Farm // Wayward SparkRed Ranger chickens at Gathering Together Farm // Wayward Spark Red Ranger chickens at Gathering Together Farm // Wayward SparkRed Ranger chickens at Gathering Together Farm // Wayward SparkRed Ranger chickens at Gathering Together Farm // Wayward Spark


San Francisco // Wayward Spark

I got back from San Francisco last night. I was pretty stiff, exhausted, and happy to be home after the 11-hour drive (the longest solo drive I’ve ever done), but the city really did treat me well while I was there.

Renegade SF

When I started my business over four years ago, I swore up and down that I would never do craft fairs. I’d worked the farmers’ market pretty much every weekend, three seasons out of the year for seven years, and I’d gotten my fill of the set-up, sell-stuff, take-down-the-booth events. Almost three years ago, I broke that promise and decided to do the local Corvallis Fall Festival. You can read about my experience in this archived post. Basically it was profitable and not terribly unpleasant, but it reaffirmed my decision not to do craft fairs. Fast forward to this spring when I got the hair-brained idea to not only do a craft fair but to do one 600 miles away from home, and really, I’m not sure what I was thinking.

From what I had heard, the Renegade Craft Fairs are well organized and well attended, and I found that to be absolutely true. All my interactions with Renegade staff were very pleasant. The booth fees are significant, but it’s an upfront cost, and they don’t take a cut from your sales.

I arrived at the Festival Pavillion of Fort Mason on Saturday morning with ample time to unload and set up, but when I got to the front door of that huge, long building and realized that my booth assignment was almost as far away from the entrance as possible, probably about a quarter of a mile from my car, my spirits fell a bit. I borrowed a dolly from the Renegade folks to unload, but it still took me I think seven trips down and back. After parking my car over a half mile away and returning to my booth, I had already walked 10,000 steps (about 5 miles) according to the pedometer app on my phone (Pacer, which I love, by the way).

My booth set up was pretty minimal. A couple tables and some wooden boxes topped with stacks of my boards. There were some really well designed and really elaborate booth arrangements at the show, but mine was definitely not one of them. I knew that would be the case, but I wasn’t too worried about it.

Things started off really well on Saturday and then tapered off into the evening. Sunday began much slower but picked up significantly in the early afternoon. Both days, I felt like people were in my booth looking at boards most of the time, so there weren’t too many long periods where I had nothing to do. In the down time, I had a couple of conversations with my nice vendor neighbors from Usagi Team.

When I turned in my Renegade SF application, there were a number of ways to state preferences for booth location, but I left everything blank because I didn’t have a good sense of the lay of the land in the venue. I would say that the space that I ended up with was not a particularly desirable location, and knowing what I know now, I would have preferred a spot much closer to the entrance both for ease of unloading and for more foot traffic.

In the end, I made a little over $3,100. (I know people aren’t supposed to talk about money, but I listened to a bunch of Death, Sex, & Money podcasts on the drive home, so I’m talking about it anyway.) I had close to $800 of expenses related to the show. I did cut down on travel costs by staying and eating quite a bit with my very generous aunt and uncle (Thanks, Linda and Bob!) and because of a last minute screw up on the part of Hertz, I ended up driving my own car down instead of using a rented mini van as I had planned, which turned out to be a true blessing in disguise. When I really think about it, though, I have to split that $2,300 profit between all my time (and materials) actually making cutting boards and the four full days of travel and sales (plus credit card fees and about a half day of prep time). When I sell online, I do have to spend time photographing, wrapping, and shipping each individual board, but I’m pretty sure the per-board expense and time investment has got to be less than the per-board expense/time for craft fair sales. That said, it takes me quite a while (months) to make $3,100 when I’m selling boards in onsies and twosies online, so it was nice to have the money in my figurative pocket and the boards out the figurative door.

Was it worth it? Well, I had a pretty good time, made a profit, and didn’t have any major mishaps, so yeah, it was worth it. Will I do it again? Probably not, but I guess I should never say never at this point.

San Francisco // Wayward Spark

The City

I spent my bits of free time on Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday eating my aunt’s delicious food, calling home to my family, chatting with my aunt and uncle, and then collapsing into bed, but I reserved the whole day on Monday for seeing the city. I started off with an early toast and coffee date with Heidi Swanson (of 101 Cookbooks fame) at The Mill. Heidi and I recognized each other at the craft fair on Saturday, and she invited me out for breakfast. I have to say that the fellowship of that meeting was more or less the highlight of my trip/summer/life. Heidi was as generous and kind and fun and funny and honest about vulnerable subjects as you might imagine by reading her blog. I was so pleased that she wanted to spend time with me.

After my brush with celebrity, I walked over to a very crowded Tartine Bakery and bought a couple of amazing pastries, one of which I sat and ate in Dolores Park while a layer of fog-rain soaked into my hair and sweater.

I met up with Halley Roberts, a friend from Portland who recently moved to San Francisco, at Soulva, a two-week old but jam-packed greek restaurant in Hayes Valley, for a late lunch where I had the biggest, most delicious salad ever.

After that, I took a long walk through Golden Gate Park. The dahlia garden was in full bloom, and the Segway tourists were out in full force.

I ended the day having dinner at acclaimed Tony’s Pizza in North Beach with Bayle Doetch, a friend of a friend that I’d met on Sunday at Renegade. Bayle is a food photographer, but she may have missed her calling as a San Francisco food tour guide. She knew every restaurant in the city and was super helpful offering suggestion and pointing out SF highlights (like the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill). I may have also packed in a small serving of cardamom gelato from the place across the street from Tony’s.

All in all, it was a good, solid day in the city, and though I didn’t get to see and eat EVERYTHING, I certainly got a bit of many different things. (According to the pedometer app on my phone, I walked almost 15 miles that day!)

Golden Gate Park // Wayward Spark

Anyone who’s going to be in San Francisco anytime soon should definitely scroll through the comments on my SF-related Instagram photos because people offered up a million great suggestions for places to eat and things to see in the city. Thanks so much for everyone who made my business trip and mini vacation such a success! Sorry that I only have these iPhone pics to offer. There’s something about being in a city where everyone is constantly taking photos of everything that makes me want to leave my “real” camera behind and just enjoy actually seeing things instead of seeing things through a camera or phone lens.


Red Onion Woodworks cutting and serving boards // Wayward Spark

I just wanted to pop in and announce that I’ll be at the Renegade Craft Fair in San Francisco at Fort Mason this weekend from 11-6 both Saturday and Sunday with a whole lot of freshly finished Red Onion Woodworks cutting and serving boards. I’d love to see and chat with any of my Bay Area peeps, so please stop by if you get a chance.

To be honest, I’ve been kind of hoarding new boards for this event, so my in-person SF customers are going to get first pick from a pretty robust inventory. The rest of you can rest assured that my online shop should start to fill up again in the coming weeks.

Today and tomorrow, I’m kind of running around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to get everything together. I haven’t done a “real” craft fair in almost two years (photos and commentary from the last one here), so I’m feeling a little underprepared, but I think things will go off without a hitch. I’ll be driving south on Friday and staying for four nights with my aunt and uncle who live in the city. I’m going to be pretty busy/exhausted for most of my time in SF, but I’ve blocked out the whole day on Monday to sightsee and eat everything. The only thing I definitely for sure want to do is eat at least one meal at Tartine Bakery (because of my love for the Tartine cookbooks). On Instagram, folks have offered me about a million other great suggestions for places to eat in the city, but if you’ve got a favorite, I’d love to hear it. Thanks!


honey sweetened currant syrup // Wayward Spark

As promised (better late than never), I’m going to talk a little about what I did with all those beautiful Ribes specimens from the Germplasm Repository.

Last year, I cooked up a heckuva lot of jam and jelly, and though I have so far made a pretty impressive effort to eat and give away a fair amount of my 2013 stash, I still have quite a bit left. When faced with a big ol’ bowl of weird and wonderful fruits a couple weeks ago, I decided that I didn’t really want to make it into jam. Instead, I turned toward beverages and then pie, like you do.

(If you are interested in making currant jam, my go-to preserver, David Lebovitz, has recipes for red currant jam and black currant jam.)

black currants

I did up the black currants first using this method:

Black Currant Liquid Concentrate

Rinse the fruit.

Throw it in a pot with a splash of water, and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, and cook the fruit until the skins burst, about 10 minutes.

Run the mixture through a basic food mill to remove the stems, skins, and some of the seeds.

Let the liquid cool down a bit, and then add honey to taste. (Cooling off the liquid before adding the sweetener preserves the raw-ness of the honey.)

honey sweetened black currant syrup // Wayward Spark

I’ve never tasted Ribena, a black currant-based beverage popular in the UK, Canada, and other countries, but Henry and I  have been really enjoying our homemade black currant drink. It’s just black currant concentrate mixed with water, but somehow the tartness of the black currants makes it a thirst-quenching powerhouse.

Simply add 1/2 to 1 cup of black currant liquid concentrate to a half-gallon jar and fill the rest with cold water. Top with a water-tight lid and give the mixture a good shake. Strain into glasses with or without ice, and enjoy immediately.

red currants // Wayward Spark

I did up the red currants and white/pink currants the same way as the black currants, but the end syrup wasn’t nearly as thick nor quite so seedy as the black currant concentrate.

honey sweetened red currant syrup // Wayward Sparkwhite currants // Wayward Sparkhoney sweetened white currant syrup // Wayward Sparkred currant switchel recipe // Wayward Spark

Our new favorite way to consume the red and white currant syrup is in a spin on the American traditional beverage called switchel. Switchel is a drink with wide variability, but it usually contains some kind of vinegar (usually cider vinegar), some kind of sweetener (usually molasses or honey), and ginger (either fresh or ground).

This summer, we’ve been trying keep a jar of switchel mixture in the fridge at all times for easy refreshment. The Kitchn has a basic switchl recipe here, but here’s our take:

Red Currant Switchel

fresh ginger
cider vinegar
red currant concentrate (optional)
lemon wedges for garnish (optional)

Use a microplane grater to grate a couple tablespoons of fresh ginger (no need to peel it first) into a bowl. Add the grated ginger, several tablespoons of honey, and 1/2 to 1 cup of cider vinegar to a glass jar. Top the jar with a water-tight lid, and give it a good shake. Let this mixture sit in the refrigerator for at least two hours or up to two weeks.

To mix a switchel drink, spoon a few tablespoons of the switchel mixture and a few tablespoons of red currant concentrate (if desired) into a quart jar and fill it the rest of the way up with water. Top it with a water-tight lid, and give it a good shake. Taste it to see if it needs more switchel mixture, red currant concentrate, vinegar, honey, or water. Strain the liquid into ice-filled glasses. Garnish with lemon wedges if desired. Serve and enjoy.

gooseberries // Wayward Spark

black caps // Wayward Spark

Shortly after my visit to the Germplasm Repository, I made another trip out to Red Barn Berry Farm to pick boysenberries and other blackberry crosses to freeze for winter pies, jams, and such. At the U-pick farm, there was a short row of black cap canes that was loaded with fruit. It took a good long while to pick a whole bowl full because they’re so small, but the reward was pretty sweet.

black caps // Wayward Sparkgooseberry-blackcap pie // Wayward Spark

I decided that the perfect way to use up the rest of the gooseberries from the Germplasm Repository and the über-special black caps was to make a colossal deep-dish, lattice-topped, barbecue-baked skillet pie. The result was a sweet-tart mess of fruity, buttery-crusted goodness.

Gooseberry-Black Cap Skillet Pie Baked in a Barbecue

a batch of double-crust pie dough (I will forever and always use Heidi Swanson/Chez Pim’s Flakey Rye Crust.)
gooseberries, de-stemmed and rinsed
black caps, rinsed
brown sugar
white flour
runny apricot jam (optional)

Preheat the barbecue with several fire brick on the grill and preferably this Lodge cast iron pizza pan or other insulating device on top. (Photo of this arrangement here.)

Roll out the bottom crust of pie dough and line a cast iron skillet with it.

In a large bowl, stir together gooseberries, black caps, a healthy dose of brown sugar, and a few tablespoons of flour. Dump the mixture into the bottom crust. There should be enough filling so that it’s mounded up over the edge of the skillet in the middle.

Roll out and arrange the top crust in a lattice (optional). (Yossy has a good latttice-crust tutorial here.) Brush the top crust with runny apricot jam for extra browning if desired.

Load the skillet into the preheated barbecue. Bake on medium for about an hour until the pie juices start to run over. If you basted the crust with apricot jam, it will darken up fairly quickly, but that’s just the sugars caramelizing not the crust burning, so don’t worry unless things start to smell bad.

Cool, serve, and enjoy.

gooseberry-black cap pie // Wayward Spark



red currants // Wayward Spark

The USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, Oregon maintains, among other things, the world collection of Ribes cultivars as well as their wild counterparts. The genus Ribes includes currants, gooseberries, and jostaberries (a black currant-gooseberry cross). Ribes species are native to the Northern Hemisphere, and in cooler, shorter-growing-season climates such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Northern Europe, and Russia, black currants have been especially prevalent in cuisine and culture through the ages. While the collection in Corvallis may not contain every Ribes variety known to humanity, it comes pretty darn close with rows and rows filled with hundreds of bushes.

Nine germplasm repositories in the US are publicly-funded operations with a mandate to preserve and protect clonal plant materials for the benefit of farmers and citizens around the world. The folks working at the repository farms in Corvallis spend most of their time doing routine orchard work (planting, irrigating, pruning, weeding, grafting, etc.), but they also dedicate a portion of their time to documenting yeild, vigor, disease resistance, cold hardiness, and other characteristics of the different varieties, and they work to educate researchers, farmers, and the general public in small and large groups.

The living plant material stored in these collections is available worldwide in the event of a disease outbreak or harsh-weather die off that leaves farmers in need of stock to replant economically and culturally significant food crops. It’s also a great resource for folks that want to revive heirloom varieties of crops. In fact a couple weeks ago, an organic farmer spent a few hours touring and tasting the Ribes collection in an effort to identify varieties that might be viable for the local market.

red currant bush // Wayward Spark

I’ve visited the Corvallis repository twice before in the fall to admire and pick quince (see archived posts here and here), but I hadn’t ever see the Ribes collection in it’s full, fruiting glory. Last week was probably the height of the season for most of the plants, so I called up my friend and neighbor, Joseph Postman, who’s a plant pathologist at the facility, and he graciously met me at the gate and gave me a quick tour of the collection.

The rows were organized by type: ornamentals, jostaberries, gooseberries, red currants, white currants, black currants, and wild species (that I didn’t get a chance to photograph because the bushes were being irrigated). There were usually three bushes of each cultivar with a marker that provides the variety name, geographic origin, and other information. The diversity even among bushes in the same broad categories was staggering.

world collection of currants and gooseberries at the USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository // Wayward Sparkthe world collection of gooseberries and currants at the USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository // Wayward Sparkred currants // Wayward Sparkred currants // Wayward Spark

My parents have a couple of red currant bushes in their yard that have never really amounted to much, so when I saw plants in the Ribes collection with huge, dangly, pearly strands of fruit, my eyes about popped out of my head. Obviously, these varieties must have been bred over the years to enhance the currant clusters for easier, more efficient harvest.

My favorite of the red currants was ‘Tatran’ because of it’s long, fruity dangles and beautiful, large, almost purplish leaves.

red currants // Wayward Spark

There were also plenty of bushes that only had a few currants hanging on each little thread of a stem, the kind that would take a good long while to accumulate a decent amount.

red currants // Wayward Sparkpink currants // Wayward Sparkwhite currants // Wayward Sparkblack currants // Wayward Spark

Black currants were new to me. As Joseph and I wandered through the many rows full of these dark beauties, we sampled quite a few. I really wish I had a finer palette and/or a better flavor vocabulary because try as I might, I couldn’t find the words to describe that black currant taste. (Some of you have probably tried the black currant-based beverage called Ribena that’s apparently popular in northern parts of North America and Europe.) Texture-wise, black currants are much meatier and less moist than their red and white cousins.

black currants // Wayward Sparkgiant black currants // Wayward Spark

I didn’t document which variety this bush was, but the fruits were huge!

gooseberries // Wayward Spark

The gooseberries in the collection came in many different colors (wine, blush, pale green, and overripe yellowish), shapes (perfectly round to elongated watermelons), and sizes (smaller than a dime to bigger than a quarter). Some of the fruits were spiked with visible little “hairs”, and others appeared to be totally smooth.  Some of the bushes were adorned with really gnarly thorns.

gooseberries // Wayward Sparkgooseberries // Wayward Sparkgooseberries // Wayward Sparkgooseberries // Wayward Sparkgooseberries and currants // Wayward Spark

Joseph let me pick more or less whatever I wanted, so I spent about an hour gathering a little of this and a little of that. In the end, my big bowl was nothing if not colorful. I’ll be posting more about what I cooked up with this bounty soon.

gooseberries and currants // Wayward Spark

The USDA Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis is having an open house on Thursday, July 17, 2014 from 1-4 pm during which time anyone can tour and sample their way through the world collection (!) of blueberry cultivars. Sounds pretty great, right? I would love to be there, but I’ll be embarking on a road trip the next day, so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to swing it. For more information about the open house or anything else, feel free to call the front desk 541-738-4200.


clary sage // Wayward Spark

Henry has contracted with growers to do a handful of local crop pollinations this year (blueberries for Radke’s Blueberries and Gibson Farms plus raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries for Sunset Valley Organics), but the one crop pollination that he’s been most excited about is clary sage. Clary sage is known for its medicinal properties and for its usefulness in cosmetics, and the purple or white blooms can be seen in fields around the Willamette Valley.

Mike Hathaway is a young grass seed and filbert farmer in Corvallis, Oregon (more about Mike in this article in the local newspaper), and he’s growing a small field of clary sage for the first time this year. Henry knows Mike from their college days when they were both studying agriculture. They’ve crossed paths a few times over the years and have chatted about beekeeping, so when Mike needed bees for pollination for the first time (grass seed and filberts are both wind pollinated), he gave Henry a call.

Henry moved several pallets of bees to the edge of the field around Memorial Day just as the sage started to bloom. The photos in this post were taken on June 22 when the bloom was on the decline. In the month prior, the bees worked the clary sage pretty hard, but they also probably brought in nectar and pollen from nearby hairy vetch and blackberries.

clary sage field // Wayward Sparkclary sage honeybee pollination // Wayward Sparkpulling frames of clary sage honey with Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

As the clary sage bloom died down, Henry wanted to pull frames of honey in order to keep this varietal batch separate from the later season valley nectar flows. Unlike the frames containing our earlier varietals, these frames of honey were mostly capped already, and because he knew the end result would only be four or five buckets of honey, he decided to extract on-site.pulling frames of clary sage honey with Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Sparkpulling frames of clary sage honey with Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

Full frames of honey are too heavy to shake to remove the bees, so Henry used a special beekeeping brush to sweep them off the frames he wanted to extract.

pulling frames of clary sage honey with Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Sparkclary sage honeybee pollination with Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

Mike the grower, came out to help and stayed the whole time. He was very curious to learn more about both honeybee pollination and honey extraction. Mike and his wife are big honey fans, and he actually traded 100 pounds of filberts in-shell with us for honey last fall. We’re still working our way through the filberts, but Mike and his wife had eaten all their honey and were ready for more.

clary sage honeybee pollination // Wayward Sparkpulling frames of clary sage honey with Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

Henry pulled any frames from the top box of each hive that had capped honey.

clary sage // Wayward Sparkextracting clary sage honey on-site with Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

We have a four-frame, hand-crank extractor that can be set up on the back of Henry’s flatbed truck. It’s not ideal, but it’s pretty efficient for small-batch extractions, and we had a hand washing station there as well to keep things as clean as possible. With farm-direct laws in Oregon, honey sold direct to consumers does not necessarily need to be extracted in a licensed facility. We do, however, hold ourselves to a high standard of sanitation when working on this messy task.

extracting honey with Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Sparkhoney extraction // Wayward Spark

Extracting on-site works pretty well when there’s still a lot of nectar resources available for bees. We hardly noticed the few bees buzzing around the truck. Later in the season when food is scarce, bees will actively rob any honey they can find and are significantly more aggressive. An operation like this would be a honeybee mob scene in another month.

One of the biggest benefits of extracting on-site is that the wets (empty or nearly empty frames of extracted comb) can go immediately back into the hives to be refilled with incoming nectar. Because he’s been focusing on increasing his number of hives for the past couple years, Henry doesn’t have a surplus of frames of drawn comb. Swapping full frames of honey out for frames with only foundation can slow honey production because the bees have to draw comb before they can fill it.

extracting clary sage honey on-site with Old Blue Raw Honey // Wayward Spark

We also got a little help from the kids.

Old Blue Raw Honey's clary sage honey // Wayward Spark

The resulting honey (unfiltered in the photo above) is light in color and bright in flavor. We STILL haven’t bottled any for sale yet, but we’ll be getting there soon.

Mike is planning on growing a much larger field of clary sage next summer, so hopefully, Henry and his bees will be back out here a year from now.


dandelion greens  // Wayward Spark

Boy, the Corvallis Saturday Farmers’ Market sure is getting pretty. After taking a bunch of photos, I was even tempted into buying a cabbage, some carrots, a couple onions, two packs of bratwurst (from Northwest Natural Beef because they’re super nice), and a few kohlrabis. I’m kind of a kohlrabi evangelist. On Saturday afternoon, I was trying to explain to some friends that kohlrabi should be everyone’s favorite vegetable because it’s so crisp, sweet, and delicious, but they weren’t too convinced. “It’s just like broccoli stem!” I insisted, but apparently, not everyone is as into broccoli stems as I am. Ugh. I can’t get enough of that stuff.

I know the posting around these parts has been a little light lately, but I’ve got a couple of bee/farm-y topics in the Wayward Spark pipeline that I’m really looking forward to sharing with you. Now I just have to find the time and motivation to write them up at the end of these long, full days.

cherries // Wayward Spark beets // Wayward Spark cherry tomatoes // Wayward Spark

Corvallis Farmers' Market // Wayward Spark

kohlrabi // Wayward Spark

Corvallis Farmers' Market // Wayward Spark

Corvallis Farmers' Market // Wayward Spark

basil // Wayward Spark

mushrooms // Wayward Spark

Corvallis Farmers' Market // Wayward Spark

berries at the Corvallis Farmers' Market // Wayward Spark

kale // Wayward Spark

Corvallis Farmers' Market // Wayward Spark

tomatoes // Wayward Spark

zucchini // Wayward Spark

berries at the farmers' market // Wayward Spark

padron peppers // Wayward Spark

blueberries // Wayward Spark

broccoli // Wayward Spark

garlic // Wayward Spark