Harvesting and Using Carob

carob powder

Although it isn’t quite carob season yet, I’m already gearing up for it, especially now that I have a nice new food processor which is going to make turning the pods into powder a breeze! Those dark brown pods are just loaded with nutrients, they are naturally sweet, which means that when using them in baking you can use less added sugar, and best of all, they can be picked for free!

Read more about harvesting and using carob in my latest Mother Earth News post:

“Carob trees grow all over Israel (and in similar climates), and the dark brown pods can be picked in the summer. They keep extremely well, so you can pick a big bunch and then process it at your convenience. Make sure the pods you pick are ripe. They are supposed to look and feel dry and to come off easily from the tree. Choose the biggest, shiniest, healthiest-looking pods.”

Image above: carob powder in the process of making.

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Myrtle berry jam

Following my previous post on myrtle’s culinary uses, I have been experimenting with myrtle leaves and berries some more. I guess I’m just really tickled that there is a berry which grows well and prolifically in our area – and it’s free for picking!

I have tried to search online for myrtle berry jam recipes but couldn’t find anything definite, except that on one site I’ve read the berries are used in mixed fruit jam, generally along with apple. I cooked up a small experimental batch with about 1:1 ratio of myrtle berries and apples, sweetened to taste. After cooking, I ran it all through a food processor and got a beautifully colored, unique-tasting jam which I’m sure will be great as yogurt or granola topping, on toast, or even as roll or pie filling (if I make a larger batch).

The astringency of the berries is almost gone after cooking, and the only improvement suggestion I’d give myself for the future would be to strain the cooked berries and discard the seeds, which have a somewhat coarse texture and slightly bitter taste.

Left: myrtle berries; right: apple and myrtle berry jam. 

Myrtle: the kitchen discovery

myrtle

Myrtle is very common in Israel and in the rest of the Mediterranean as well, its hardiness and evergreen freshness making it a perfect choice for decorative hedges. It also has a significance in the Jewish faith, being one of the four species used in celebrating Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles).

It was only very recently, however, that we discovered that the myrtle berries – and leaves too – are actually edible. We are still experimenting with this, but in general the leaves may be added to soups and stews in a way similar to laurel leaves, imparting a subtle flavor and aroma (remove before eating), while the ripe berries can be likewise used in stews, sauces, meat, chicken, fish and even grain dishes. They have a fruity, slightly astringent flavor.

Myrtle berries are quite ripe when they are dark purple to black in color, which happens around here as late as November-December. Places where myrtle hedges are used for decorative purposes are good locations for picking; I can’t imagine anyone would object. Myrtle would be a good choice for planting on one’s property as well. It’s a hardy shrub which always looks fresh and smells delightful.

Besides flavoring various dishes, I have read that myrtle berries can be made into jam or steeped in alcohol to make a drink traditionally produced in Sardinia. We haven’t tried this yet but might experiment in the future. Myrtle also has some unique health properties, in particular for treatment of respiratory conditions and skin health. Here is a simple recipe for making myrtle oil at home. If I try this out, I will let you know.

Making carob powder

The pods of the carob tree are rich in minerals and vitamins, and can be utilized to make tasty, naturally sweet powder that is often used as a cocoa/chocolate substitute. Now, I personally can always tell the difference between carob and chocolate, but I still like the taste very much and think it’s great in brownies and other baked goods. As a bonus, unlike cocoa, carob is naturally sweet, so when using it I can cut back on added sugar.

Carob trees grow all over Israel (and in other similar climates) and the dark brown pods can be picked in the summer, for free, if you know where to look. They make a tasty, chewy snack right off the tree – only beware of the little hard seeds. They also keep extremely well, so you can pick a big bunch and then process it in parts at your convenience.

Make sure the pods you pick are ripe. They are supposed to look and feel dry and to come off easily from the tree. To make sure, break one in half and taste it. Pick the biggest, shiniest, healthiest-looking pods.

Wash the pods and boil them for around 30 minutes to soften them. This way they will be easier to de-seed. Cut them lengthwise with a sharp knife, remove the seeds, break into pieces and place on a cookie sheet. Dry in the oven on low heat – really low, as you don’t want to burn them (it will give the powder a bitter tinge), or in the sun. The pod pieces should be really crisp.

roasted carob

Throw your dried carob pieces into the food processor. Once you have mostly powder, sift to remove any chunks that are left, then return them into the food processor and repeat. I know my end product isn’t really like commercial carob powder – I could have used a finer sieve, but I didn’t bother. I know it will be quite good enough in my brownies.

powdered carob

Once the powder is ready, it can be stored in a tightly closed glass jar for a long time.

Processing prickly pears

Prickly pear season is here, and my husband got a big bunch very cheaply, from someone who picked them off the hedge on his property. When he came home with the loot, I foolishly forgot that the prickly pear is – well, prickly – and carelessly grabbed one. I had a quick, painful reminder of the fact that the prickly pear, actually the fruit of the opuntia cactus, is full of tiny fiberglass-like spines called glochids, which very easily get embedded in the skin and are very difficult to dislodge. Soaking my hand in warm water helped get most of them out, though, and I carefully proceeded to look for a pain-free way of utilizing this unusual fruit.

Rule number one: don’t touch the skin of the prickly pear with your bare hands. Wear thick gloves or, as I did, use tongs. 

pricklypeartongs

While holding the prickly pear down with tongs, use a knife to cut off the edges (“top” and “bottom”) of the fruit. Then cut several slits, length-wise, in the skin and pry it off with the tip of the knife. It’s a little tricky at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.

Briefly wash your peeled prickly pear under a running tap, to make sure any glochids that might have stuck to the fruit are washed away. You don’t want them in your tongue!

At this point you can eat the prickly pears fresh, or juice them. To make juice, I first mashed the fruit with a potato masher, then strained the whole mess. The juice is great as part of cold beverages, and can also be made into syrup or jelly. The remaining seeds, mash and peels make a great treat for chickens (or, if you don’t have chickens, they can be composted).

mashpricklypears

Mashing the prickly pears

I do have to say, though, that the whole process is somewhat labor-intensive: a whole lot of fruit gives comparatively little juice. Since the season of the prickly pear is short, it’s alright as a once-a-year project, but I wouldn’t do it on a regular basis.

pricklypearjuice

Above: prickly pear juice, for a refreshing cold drink or for making syrup or jelly. I love its bright orange color. 

Foraging for edible goods

There’s an ongoing debate about whether growing your own food in your backyard is really profitable (in terms of money – there’s no doubt it’s healthy, educational and satisfying). If you are aiming for a productive vegetable garden that will reduce your grocery bill, it is important to stay focused on the goal, as with the prices of seeds/plants, potting soil and water, the scale really may tip.

Fortunately, no such considerations exist when it comes to foraging for wild-growing bounty – whether actually wild plants or domesticated species that grow in your area with little to no help from anyone. There’s no excuse not to pick up good food that is right there for the taking!

Every fall, our family gathers olives to pickle, from trees that had been once planted by someone but are now untended. There’s also a bounty of grapes, pomegranates, figs and carobs – all plants that grow well locally, require minimal water and care, and keep producing almost without effort once they are up and going. There are also old, productive pecan trees most people don’t bother with, because they like their pecans shelled and neatly packaged.

Figs are my favorites – they are easy to pick and process, delicious eaten fresh or made into jam or pie filling, and I love them dried, too, though I have not yet been able to gather enough for drying.

figs

Photo: the first figs of the season are ripe, and there are plenty more to come!

Furthermore, in many urban neighborhoods there are citrus trees planted for decorative purposes, which are actually insanely productive. Most people don’t bother picking those oranges and grapefruits because they somehow think the effort is beneath them or just not worth it. A year and a half ago, we spent a memorable morning picking miniature oranges. Though January, it was a warm day, and I was fagged soon – no wonder, as my son Israel was born a little more than 24 hours later! The oranges kept in the refrigerator for several weeks without spoiling, and they were still in perfectly good condition when I finally recovered from giving birth and found the time to make jam out of them.

Another local fruit to be picked around here for free is the prickly pear, an introduced species that has done so well in Israel it has become one of the symbols of the country. It grows practically everywhere, and its season is almost here now. Those who live in Western US and Mexico are surely familiar with it as well.

In every area of the world there is some wild food growing free for the taking, to be enjoyed by all who can appreciate the thrill of getting delicious goodies with very little effort: greens, fruit, nuts, berries, mushrooms. So why not pick up a basket and go exploring? Lots of fresh produce is waiting out there, all for free.

By the way… I am now on Earthineer. You can find me there as SmallFlocksMom. I’d love to connect with you!