Sunday, April 14, 2013

Harbingers of Spring and Violet Syrup

La Violette de Mars, otherwise known as the Common Violet.
SPRING! Spring spring spring! Have I mentioned how excited I am about SPRING? Yes? Well then, I'll only mention it once more... SPRING!!!

The world is only just turning green here, a full month later than last year. One of the plants I am watching for are the sweet little violets that blanket my backyard every spring. Last year they were even more robust than usual. As is my tendency when I find a resource in abundance, I soon began wondering how I could take advantage of nature's bounty. The first thing to pop up, and the only thing I had an opportunity to try, was violet syrup. Not only is this unique floral syrup a treat for your tea or pancakes, but it can also be helpful for coughs and other medicinal needs. As a matter of fact, the leaves are also medicinally useful, but that's a post for another day. For now, check out this post on Common Sense Homesteading for a good rundown. One of my latest passions is herbal medicine, so you will certainly be seeing more about it in the coming months.

The violet syrup was easy enough to make. I followed the recipe on Life's a Lasagna, with some minor alterations. First, I had to gather about 4 cups of blossoms. Yes, this takes forever, but on a beautiful spring day I'll jump at the chance to sit in the sunshine for an hour. I packed all the blossoms in a quart canning jar, poured 2 cups of boiling water over top, then let it sit to steep overnight. What happens next is... downright magical. The color from the petals quickly seeps out, and the water will turn the most unbelievably gorgeous blue that I have ever seen. I wish I had gotten a picture, but I was feeling sick that day and forgot.

In fact, I ended up coming down with a 104*F fever that lasted a full five days. Instead of steeping overnight, my blossoms steeped for a week. Thankfully, I'd had the forethought to stick the jar in the fridge after the first day. After such a long steep, the brilliant blue had changed to a deep, DEEP amethyst. So beautiful!

Now, this next step is where I differed from Ms. Lasagna's recipe. You see, the brilliant color of the violets is very sensitive to heat and changes in ph. Both the heating of the liquid and the lemon juice called for in many recipes turns the brilliant blue (or purple, in my case) to a vibrant fuchisa pink. While beautiful in it's own right, I much preferred the color I started with. So, this is what I decided to do. First, I ditched the lemon juice. It's only there to add a touch of flavor and acidify it for canning (which I didn't do, I froze it), and it's the acidity more than anything that changes the color.

Look at that color!
Next, I decided to heat my syrup double-boiler style. I set my 4 cup glass measuring cup in a pan of water, poured the strained violet water into the measuring cup, and added 2 cups of white sugar (any other sugar would probably overpower the delicate violet flavor, but any sugar will work). I initially used the double boiler so it would be easier to pour the syrup into bottles, but a fortunate side effect was that I was able to gently heat the syrup just until all the sugar dissolved. Much to my delight, this process preserved every bit of the amethyst color!

It actually looks more like the above picture, but I love the color in this shot!

 I then decanted my springtime treasure into bottles and stuck most in the freezer. Sadly, I think I still have two down there. I really didn't use the syrup much, but then I really didn't know HOW to use it.That's not the case anymore, as I have expanded my knowledge of edible and medicinal plants. I'm contemplating trying to make violet candy this year, or possibly violet jelly. Either way, the coming onslaught of nature's jewels will only increase my excitement for spring!

Friday, April 12, 2013


Spring in my kitchen window! (Please ignore the filthy glass. Thank you.)
Oh, baby! The weather has finally warmed up, the world is starting to turn green again, and I feel GREAT!

Well, ok, I feel emotionally great, which is a pretty big deal. I don't know if it's all the vitamin D my skin has been soaking up this past week, but I just plain feel POSITIVE about life! My hormones were FAR more stable last month (NO PMS!) and last week we met with our soon-to-be next door neighbors. I'm so excited for them to move in at the end of the month! They have two little boys the same age as my goobs, and I foresee a little Lucy & Ethel style shenanigans in my own future...

I've also been able to get started on the garden. If you remember my tomato debacle last summer, you know that I have to break new ground in order to grow anything this year. In addition, my new eating habits have me buying GOBS of fresh vegetables. This is putting a huge strain on the food budget, so I'm hoping to ease that by growing some of my own.

There's another reason I'm growing my own veg this year. Over the last few weeks, I have come to realize that I am ridiculously sensitive to even minute traces of corn. The slightest amount causes joint inflammation, disorientation, headaches, and exhaustion.

My Arch-Nemesis... dang, that looks delicious.

If you think dairy and gluten are tough to avoid, wait til you try cutting out ALL corn. It's in EVERYTHING! Modified food starch, dextrose, citric acid... all of these ingredients are most likely derived from corn. Citric acid was an especially frustrating, although enlightening, find. I've known for a while that Hunt's Garlic & Herb tomato sauce affected me, but couldn't figure out why. The ingredients all looked clean. I started avoiding it and cooking with plain diced tomatoes or tomato sauce. Much to my confusion, I was STILL reacting to foods. Finally, two weeks ago, I realized that the ONE common ingredient (besides tomatoes, duh) was citric acid. Although it can come from other sources, in America it's typically made from corn! Since then I have scoured store shelves for a citric acid-free canned tomato product. Nothing. Even the organic brands boast a "naturally derived" citric acid, but I hardly trust that vague distinction. Looks like I'm going to have to can my own tomatoes in order to have a product I can trust.

As of that wasn't a big enough kick in the stones, just last week I found another product I can't have. I was getting a pretty big headache one day, despite eating nothing but pbj on grain free bread. The bread? Totally safe, I made it from scratch. Peanut butter? I only buy Krema brand, which has one ingredient. Jelly? It was my homemade apple peel jelly (still one of my favorites!). Let's see, the jelly had apple peels, tap water, white sugar, a small amount of spices and... pectin. Uh, oh. I checked a box of pectin, and sure enough, the first ingredient was dextrose, a corn-derived sugar. All those jellies and jams I canned up last summer? Can't have them. At all. After all the love and effort that went into them, this was seriously depressing. Thank GOD I also have apple butter, which does not contain pectin. It has become my one sweet treat.

Now, I know there are people who might be saying, "come on, the amount of corn that would actually be in an entire batch of jelly, never mind a jar, never mind a sandwich, can't possibly be affecting you!" If you're saying that, you're in good company, because even my dear, supportive Hubby is having trouble grasping just how sensitive I am. Some days, I worry that I look like a hypochondriac, even though there is no denying the physical effects I feel. I have eaten foods without carefully reading labels, and just by how I felt 15 minutes later I could tell you there was something in it I can't have. So, doubt me if you like, I would certainly do the same in your shoes, but my body is shouting loud and clear to lose ALL corn products.

There's always an up side!

On to more positive news, my sudden burst of positivity (and a clean kitchen) has me finally tackling the problem of an adequate diet. Cooking 100% grain and dairy free is a real challenge, especially when you have a normal-eating husband and two kids to feed as well. Virtually everything that passes my lips has to be made from scratch, and I'm even picky about what brand of chicken I buy. (many are injected with "broth" to enhance flavor, but there's no telling what's in the broth. My biggest question is, how lousy does the meat taste that you have to inject flavor?!) I am tinkering with quite a few recipes, and when I finally get the results I'm looking for I will be sharing them here. I'm also completely out of the habit of menu planning, and want to get back in to that.

Speaking of planning, I am also working on getting my household binder back up and running. I developed a pretty good system that, potentially, could work very well for me. It's going to take some effort, because my schedule is going to get very busy very soon. AC will finally be getting in to speech therapy, starting next week! I can't wait! Although he's much better than he was a year ago, he could still use the help. What I'm NOT looking forward to is the drive. Twice a week, an hour away. Yuck. I did find out that there's a Whole Foods very close to the therapy building, and since I've never been to one I think I'll be making a stop after AC's appointment. Mommy needs field trips, too!

Ok, enough chatter for today. Maybe next post I will get around to showing you my progress in the garden. To save money I am tilling up the whole thing by HAND! Not an easy task, but I am actually enjoying the exercise! I love SPRING!