Uncle Rick’s Maple Sugar Shack

Starting Saturday afternoon and lasting through Tuesday evening, I took a bit of time all for me.  I planned to do only things that would make me happy and to worry about no one else.  Stop number one on my itinerary was to visit “Uncle Rick’s” sugar shack.  I’ve known for some time that Rick boils sap every year, but I had never been able to fit it into my schedule to visit his operation.  Saturday would be the last day he planned to boil – and the first day of my vacation!  Perfect timing.

Rick collects sap from trees on his property and on properties within a mile of his house.  Katie and I rode along and helped empty the buckets.  The sap was flowing fast.





Lots of critters enjoy the sap, including moths and beetles.  We rescued a couple.



Rick also stopped the truck to rescue a wooly bear.


Back at the shack, Rick filters the sap to remove insects and chunks of bark and who knows what that may have fallen into the buckets despite the lids.

The bit that looks like a metal bucket tapers in and has a paper filter in the bottom.

The wood stove provides heat under two giant rectangular tubs.


As he pours sap into the larger of the two, he moves rubber bands along a series of nails to help him remember how many gallons he started with.

(The “Anderson” sign comes from Gordon Anderson from whom Rick acquired most of his equipment.)


Before moving the sap from the large tub to the smaller for the final boil, he filters it again.


The resulting syrup is liquid gold.  Katie and I enjoyed testing it.




Thanks, Rick, for an educational and fun afternoon!


Currant Jelly

The first weekend in July is usually the time to make Currant Jelly.  I have one bush in the backyard that produces so many berries I can easily make 12-24 jars.  Tonight I made 12.  I might make a few more tomorrow.


Making Currant Jelly couldn’t be easier.  I use my largest pot and fill it to the brim with berries – which doesn’t take long if I don’t bother to stem them.  I just pull off clusters and put them in the pot!

Put them over a burner for about an hour until the juice is running out and the berries start to lose their color.  Watch it though!  You’ll have to turn the heat down at some point or they will bubble all over the top of your stove.

Strain the berries through cheese cloth and reserve the juice.

Measure 4 cups of juice into a deep pot.  Boil hard for 5 minutes.  Add 3 cups of sugar and boil hard for another 5 minutes.  Reduce the heat and simmer for 12-20 minutes.  You don’t need pectin, because currants contain so much pectin naturally.

Pour into sterilized jelly jars.  Cap with new lids (old rims are OK).  Screw lids on tightly.  Listen for the popping as the jars cool.

Three Jars of Currant Jelly on the Floor in the Sun

(There’s no such thing as) Free Food – Part III

Picking ApplesMy muscles ache a bit today, but it is a satisfying ache.  The result was a taste so fresh and crisp – it was certainly worth the effort and the resulting stiff muscles.

Farmer Dave had picked all the apples he wanted for winter.  He told my friend Terry that he could have the rest for cider.  I agreed to help.  I had never made apple cider before and was willing to learn.  We started by picking apples.  I love the clawed basket tool that allowed us to reach the tops of the trees without a ladder.  Who comes up with these clever ideas?

These will be cider soon...We had no idea how many to pick… how many apples does it take to make a gallon of cider?  We wanted to make apple sauce, too, so just keep picking… We didn’t fill the wagon. What would you say this looks like? A couple of bushels maybe?  Perhaps a little more?

We hauled the equipment out of the barn and got it cleaned up and ready to go.  Already, the bees were buzzing around the wagon.  Dave had warned us that they would really start coming when we began pulverizing the apples.


Making mashI’m not sure what this piece of equipment is called.  One of the websites I found referred to it as a “scratcher” and the name was in quotes.  Maybe there is a more official name?  You put apples in the hopper on top and turn the crank.  The apples are crushed and drop into a 5 gallon bucket underneath.


Pressing the mashThe crushed apple mash is transferred to a burlap sack and placed in this bucket-shaped frame.  A block of wood on top of the burlap sack allows us to press the sack, squeezing the juice out of the mash.  This juice is filtered through several layers of cheesecloth and then bottled.  (I forgot to take a picture of our filtering system… but basically , it was a stainless steel colander of sorts that we lined with cheesecloth and placed over a stainless steel milking bucket.)

I think we figured it took about a 5 gallon bucket of mash to make 1 gallon of cider.  We never did figure out how many apples it took to make the 5 gallon bucket of mash, though.  Maybe we’ll figure that out next year?

By the way… Dave wasn’t joking about the bees.  They were everywhere, making me just a little nervous.  They seemed to have no interest in us, though… just wanted the apples and juice!

We had glasses of fresh cider with lunch.  Terry will probably drink the rest of his cider over the next few days.  I put the rest of mine in the freezer to pull out for Thanksgiving dinner.  We saved out some of the rounder apples to make applesauce.  I’ll serve that on Thanksgiving, too.

Pam (Nature Woman) remembers making cider with her family as a kid.  Read about it here.  What do you think, Pam?  Is this pretty much the same process you remember?  Do you have any tips for us for next year?

Many thanks to Dave who gave us the apples and taught us how to make cider.  You can visit Dave and stay at his Country House Bed and BreakfastClick here to learn more.

(There’s no such thing as) Free Food – Part II

Hickory Woods in SpringWhen I was a kid, I remember racing the squirrels for hickory nuts, butternuts, and beechnuts – all of which grew in our neighborhood.  We learned, as the squirrels know, to distinguish the tasty, meaty nuts from the “duds” by cracking a lot of both.  Eventually, we could tell by the look of a nut if it would provide us with a tasty treat and we tossed aside the duds before wasting our energy cracking them.

Shagbark Hicorky in WinterThe beechnuts were easy to open – especially if one the girls had let her fingernails grow out a bit.  The shells of beechnuts are soft enough; you can slip your thumbnail behind one of the triangular sides and peel it back to extract the nut.

The hickories and butternuts required tools:  one flat rock to place the nut on and another rounder rock that we could use to smash the nuts open.  There was some learning involved there, too.  If you smashed the nut too hard, your nut meats would be crushed and it would require patience to separate them from the shells.  If you didn’t smash it enough, you might end up with perfect nut meats – but they would be stuck in the shell whose contours match the nut making extraction difficult, indeed sometimes impossible.

While walking the dog in the hickory woods behind Bergman Park one fine fall day, I was struck by the sound of falling hickory nuts.  It was raining nuts.  I decided right then that I would return with a bucket or bag so I could gather some.  I felt a little silly passing the other dog-walkers with my blue bucket, but no one asked what I intended to put in there.  It took almost no time at all to fill the bucket to the top.

Shagbark Hickory Nuts in the FallI spread the nuts out on trays in the sun to dry the thick green husks so that they would pop off easily.  I’m still going through the nuts, cracking them one by one with channel locks!  The sad truth is, I’ve forgotten since childhood how to tell the good ones from the duds… so I’m having to re-learn that!  Another sad truth is that from that 3 or 4 gallon bucket of nuts, I will probably only have enough meats to make one batch of cookies.  I don’t care though… It’s still fun to say – “Yeah!  I gathered the nuts for these cookies…”

(There’s no such thing as) Free Food – Part I

ElderberriesA few weeks ago, a friend introduced me to Elderberries.  Oh, I knew what they were… but I had never harvested them, or prepared them for the freezer, or made them into jam, or baked them in a pie.  Now, in case you are reading this thinking, “Ooh, I’m going to do that, too,” let me just warn you:  Gathering and preparing elderberries ain’t for sissies!

Elderberries grow in places where the ground is wet.  Sometimes Very Wet.  We got wet gatherng elderberries.  Elderberries are a very dark purplish blue.  Our fingers got purple separating the berries from the stems.  Elderberries are little.  It takes a long time to clean enough of them for a pie.

I’ve experimented with a few recipes with mixed results.

First, my failures:  I tried an Elderberry Jam recipe I found on the Internet.  It involved cooking berries and sugar until it got to a particular temperature and then pouring into jelly jars, etc.  I don’t have a candy thermometer, so I just guessed.  Hahahaha…  I REALLY overcooked it.  If you can even get it out of the jar with a jackhammer, you may break your tooth trying to eat it.  I gave it to my friend.  He calls it Elderberry Crunch.  If I try jam again, I think I’ll add pectin instead of guessing the right temperature…

Another on-line recipe was for Elderberry Crunch Bread.  (Surprisingly, it did not call for overcooked “jam.”)  It was a very healthy recipe:  no sugar, whole grain flour, etc.  I’m sure it’s very good for me.  But it has no flavor.  I’m still baffled.  How can you put strong-flavored elderberries in a recipe and end up with something that has no flavor?  There’s another loaf of it in the freezer.  I can’t get motivated to thaw it out… 

My first Elderberry Pie was tasty, though my mom recommended a bit of lemon juice to bring out the flavor of the berries even more.  My second pie, this time with lemon juice (and I think slightly riper berries) was delicious.

Elderberry BlossomsApparently, you can also eat the blossoms in June or July.  Dip them in batter and fry them in oil, so says the Peterson guide to Edible Wild Plants.  Sounds like a lot less work.  I don’t know though… flowers turn into berries.  The berries are so incredibly delicious… I would hate to forego berries in favor of flowers.  Maybe next summer I’ll try just one cluster.

I titled this post “(There’s no such thing as) Free Food – Part I”.  There was no exchange of money for the berries.  A little gasoline was burned looking for bushes on back roads.  A lot of time was spent cleaning the berries… but what else was I going to do?  Watch TV?  Some people knit or crochet or embroider or sew.  I like to have something to do with my hands, too.  Since I love food way more than hand-knit socks (nothing personal, Suzzles or Nature Knitter!) using my hands to prepare food is satisfying to me.  I found cleaning the berries on the front porch to be rather meditative and relaxing.  Plus, there is great satisfaction in knowing where your food comes from.  It was worth the “price.”

Elderberry NotecardElderberries also make for great art!  I am making a series of notecards on the theme of “native berries.”  I turned the above image into this.

You should Google “elderberry.”  It’s a pretty interesting plant.  It has many reported health benefits.  It has been used for jams, jellies, wine, pies, and other recipes.  Berries can be frozen or dried for long term storage.  The wood has been used to make flutes and arrows.  Oh and there is so much more!

Part II – coming soon – Hickory Nuts!

Connections – and a Recipe

Garlic MustardIsn’t this a pretty plant?  It’s called Garlic Mustard and it grows all over the place – especially where the ground has been disturbed – and especially where our native wildflowers such as Toothwort would like to grow.  Garlic Mustard is non-native and aggressively invasive.  When it invades an area, it takes over quickly and outcompetes the native flowers for sunlight, water, soil, and nutrients.

There are several species of Toothwort that are native.  In the woods where I have been walking this spring, it seems that the Cut-leaved variety is blooming first, followed by another species with a more solid-looking leaf.

Cut-leaved ToothwortToothwort

Also in the mustard family, these spring wildflowers provide food for the larva of the West Virginia White Butterfly. West Virginia Whites by Tom LeBlancMy friend Tom could probably tell you a lot more about these critters than I! In fact, this is his picture. Click on it – then browse his other photos. Also check out his blog at http://monarchbfly.com/.

If you want to know all the details of how Garlic Mustard got here, what the hazards are, how to control it, here’s a much better account of all that than I could possibly summarize here:


Anyway… all of this is background in preparation for sharing a recipe.  You see, nature centers all over the country are in a quandry over what to do about this pest.  Here at Audubon, we have attempted to host garlic mustard pulls to eradicate the plant, especially from our Bentley Sanctuary – with mixed success.  I have said for years, “You must be able to cook with it…”  but I never followed through with that idea…  Well, the Kalamazoo Nature Center did.  You can order a publication from them called Garlic Mustard: From Pest to Pesto.  So we did.  And last Friday, I made the “Spring Pesto” recipe.  (It’ll never be as good as basil pesto… but it was mighty tasty.)  If you decide to try this recipe, be sure to pull your weeds from a place where herbicides are not used!

3 cups of Garlic Mustard leaves and stems
1 cup of chives
2 tsp of chopped garlic mustard root
1/2 cup pine nuts (or cashews or walnuts)
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Put it all in the food processor and make a paste out of it.  Use as you would any pesto – Toss with noodles and some romano cheese.  Spread it on a flat bread, top with fresh tomatoes sliced very thin and cheese, then broil until the cheese is browned.  Mix it into sour cream or plain yogurt to make a great dip.