Signs of Spring

Signs of Spring

In these parts, it’s a sure sign of spring when the white, pink-tinged flowers of the native serviceberry trees come into bloom. Those delicate blossoms burst open in our corner of the world a couple of weeks ago. Everywhere. All at once.

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Almost as dainty as snowflakes

So even though almost everything else is bare and we were immediately plunged into yet another cold snap (so often our mountain springtime fate), it’s comforting that the serviceberry knows spring is here.

See how bare all the other trees are?

There are more than two dozen species of the serviceberry tree. Most all are native to the U. S., and they grow in practically every state. Depending on where you live, you may know them by another name. Maybe shadbush, juneberry, shadblow, or their Native American name, saskatoon. In the east, it’s just plain serviceberry, or sarvisberry in our southern mountain dialect.

There are lots of stories about how the serviceberry came by its name. The one I’m particularly fond of says that back in the day, the tree came into flower just as the roads in the Appalachian mountains became passable enough that a circuit-riding preacher could finally travel this way again to hold service—or sarvis. Time for marrying and burying to resume. That explanation may be a bit fanciful, but isn’t it a lovely notion?

There’s more to the serviceberry than its early blooms or the tales associated with it. A member of the rose family, the serviceberry is a good landscaping choice with its pretty spring flowers and its striking fall foliage. In the summer, the tree bears berries that turn from red to purplish-blue as summer wears on. Bird love them. So do humans who’ve had the good fortune to discover them (and the good luck to beat the birds to them). The ripe berries both look and taste a lot like blueberries and are eaten raw or used for jelly- and pie-making. They can be added to breads, dried like raisins, or turned into juice or syrup. Like blueberries, they’re also highly nutritious.

Most of the serviceberries around here are natives, twenty to sixty feet tall. With their upward-stretching limbs, it’s hard to get at those berries. But you can purchase shrub-sized ones, which makes berry collecting ever so much easier. We have a young serviceberry down our road (courtesy of the birds, no doubt), so we’ve been able to sample some berries. Delicious!

If you see a serviceberry in bloom, make a note of it. Then check back in July or so for some tasty—and free—eating. You won’t be sorry.

Recipes: Rhubarb Syrup and Rhubarb Soda

Recipes: Rhubarb Syrup and Rhubarb Soda

Maybe you’re already seeing ruby-red stalks of rhubarb in the produce section of your favorite grocery store. If so, you need to grab them up and rush home to make your favorite rhubarb dish—in my experience, stores stock the stalks for only a few short weeks in springtime.

For this reason, I used to think rhubarb’s season was short-lived, but if you grow it, you know the plant continues to grow all summer long. If you’re like me, you have more rhubarb than you know what to do with, yet you don’t want any food source to go to waste—especially one that’s so chock full of important vitamins and other nutrients.

Making rhubarb syrup for soda (and other uses) is one quick, easy, and delicious way to use up a fair supply of your abundant crop. Yes, it’s sugary,  but much better for you than that bottled high-fructose-corn-laden stuff that comes off the grocery shelf. It’s simple to make, too—just three ingredients.

I first discovered this recipe in John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist’s excellent Farmstead Chef. More than a cookbook, it’s about real food, sustainability, community. But it’s a darned good cookbook, too, with plenty of vegetarian and vegan recipes (and a  few that aren’t) that take their cue from what’s in season, so if you grow your own or frequent your local farmers’ market, Farmstead Chef is going to be right up your alley.

Their recipes aren’t just tasty; they’re simple and sensible, too—you won’t have to go searching in specialty stores for ingredients you’d likely never use again for any of these recipes. Besides, Lisa and John are the coolest!  You never know what they’re going to be up to next. I highly recommend this book (as well as their books on sustainability).

I’ve tweaked the instructions a tad to suit my tastes and food prep style.

Rhubarb Syrup and Soda

Put twelve cups of fresh, chopped rhubarb and 2 cups of water in a large nonreactive pot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low. Cook until the rhubarb is soft and pulpy (approximately 20-30 minutes). Alternatively, you can cook on low in a slow cooker for a couple of hours.

Place a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl and drain the juice into it. Use the back of a large spoon to press out as much liquid as you can without forcing the pulp through the sieve. (You’re done with the pulp now, so you can add it to your compost,okay?)

Return the liquid to the pot and place over very low heat. Add 3 cups of sugar, stirring constantly until it’s dissolved.

At this point you have rhubarb syrup, which you could use in any number of applications, but since this is a recipe for soda, we’ll stick to that plan for now.

Let syrup cool to room temperature. Now you have three choices. Refrigerate it or freeze* it for later use or enjoy it right this minute. Here’s how.

Lightly mix 1 part syrup to 2 parts unflavored seltzer water.** So, for a 12-oz. glass, 1/4 cup syrup and 1/2 cup seltzer. At this point, you’ll need to do a little taste-testing and, if needed, either add more syrup or seltzer to suit your taste buds. Be sure to make a note of your final proportions for future reference. Pour mixture into an an ice-filled glass (a 12 oz. glass is the perfect size) for some lovely, blush-pink bubbly. If you’re serving a crowd, you can mix up a bigger batch and serve immediately from a pitcher—you don’t want to lose the fizz factor.

* You can freeze your syrup in wide-mouth Mason jars. They’re freezer proof as long as you leave an inch or two of head space. I prefer using these white plastic lids rather than the two-piece contraptions that come with the jars. These days you can find the lids in most stores that carry canning supplies.

Because of the sugar content, the mixture doesn’t freeze solid, so when you find yourself in a winter funk and need a pick-me-up, it’s easy to dish a few spoonfuls of this magical elixir into a glass and top it off with seltzer. Spring in a glass.

Cheers!

**I’ve also tried this with lemon-lime flavored seltzer, and really liked the extra flavor complexity.

(Check back next week for more on versatile rhubarb.  Click here for my easy skillet rhubarb upside-down cake.)