Monday, March 27, 2017

The yen to grow again

The two shiny uniform grocery store tomatoes had been on the counter for two weeks at least; maybe three. Why no one ate them is beyond me though when they had arrived on the counter, there had been several more. So, they were the left overs;  the also rans. The losers in the culinary race to table.
            Finally, with one well on its way to ruin and rot (I tossed it in the garbage), I cut the other one in wedges in preparation for it to join the greens of a salad. Lo and behold, that aged tomato had done what all life does when given the chance: it had made a last ditch effort to reproduce. For there, in the inner juicy compartments, grew small tomato plants. Not merely small sprouts emerging from seeds; no, there were complete little plants with green leaves beginning to unfurl.
            Eating the tomato was a little like consuming a mother, but I had set aside the young plants. Retrieving the other tomato from the garbage, I harvested more young plants from its center and planted them in the ready soil in two small pots where my bonsai experiment had expired. From the ashes of bonsai grew the progeny of tomatoes.
            As the young plants grew, more seeds sprouted and created tight little knots of baby tomato plants, like little green palm trees. Soon enough they needed to be transplanted, which I did, separating the close-knit siblings, giving each set of two to four plants their own growing container. I set them deep in lovely loose growing medium.

            It’s now the fourth week of March. It will be another six weeks, at least, before I dare set this fortunate family outside. Fifty tomato plants with prodigious futures from two “losers in the culinary race to table.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Minnesota food entrepeneurs using Leatherwood Vinegar

     Now in our 12th year of making fine wine vinegar, we have both followed and ridden the crest of the local foods movement. We appreciate that food grown locally is coming to be appreciated and consumed as it was several decades ago.
My grandpa's vinegar jug in Leatherwood Vinegary.
     I grew up on a small central Minnesota farm. During the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Mom had a large garden and canned, pickled and froze so much of our food. I remember going with Dad to the “locker plant” to pick up meat that came from animals pastured on our land. Grass fed beef wasn’t a common term then. But it’s what cattle were. We didn’t use pesticides or herbicides until Dad’s farm classes (that all area farmers were encouraged to take to learn how to do it right) insisted he should use Round-up and commercial fertilizers though he always put natural fertilizers (manure) back on the land. One year Mom, who always subscribed to Rodale’s Organic Gardening Magazine, agreed that Round-up might take care of the weeds at the end of the garden. It certainly did. That area wouldn’t grow anything, for years.
     During my years on the farm, pickles were made with distilled white vinegar though apple cider vinegar made its appearance a few times. My grandfather had a vinegar jug (and I have it now) but I don’t think he ever attempted to make his own. It’s likely that when he went to the grocery store he filled his jug from a vat of some kind that the store made available to its customers. So, throughout the last century or more, people not only didn’t make their own vinegar, they lost the knowledge of how it was made. This is evident during the tours we host in the vinegary. Many times the looks on peoples’ faces reveal the wonder of the process during which bacteria converts alcohol to acetic acid—vinegar.
    A more recent trend, that of locavores who look for sources of all their food within a set distance from their homes, has evolved into entrepreneurs who are making artisan food products and are looking for local sources for the ingredients for their products. Several of these are either already using our vinegar or are considering it for use in the near future.
     Our most enduring example is Bon Appetit Management Company. They have been offering Leatherwood Vinegar in their catering and buffet services for several years. Minnesota’s History Center is a prime example as well as the catering they do for the University of Minnesota.
     Isabel Street Heat, produced in St. Paul, Minnesota, uses a salt crusted fermentation process to create their hot sauces. Interested in creating a healthy probiotic version, Tony and Leslie Stoy contacted us and have begun using Leatherwood Vinegar in some of their products.
     Last month, Will Flanagan of “ brine+barrel pickle company” contacted us about using our vinegars in the pickles made by this brand new Twin Cities company. While the nearly year-long process of making our vinegars makes the price somewhat prohibitive for pickle-making, Will and company are taking a careful look as to how they might produce a special entirely local pickle product.
     Just last week Molly and Maddy from the Twin Cities Stock Exchange stopped in for a tour and tasting. They went away with enough vinegar for a good start in enhancing their gourmet soup stocks with Leatherwood Vinegar.
     If you google “vinegar made in Minnesota,” the top two search results take you to information about our vinegary. Does that mean that there are no other vinegar makers in Minnesota? Maybe. At least made from scratch the way we do it. We’re listed in Minnesota Grown. It’s satisfying that Minnesota Grown has a list item of “vinegar.” They didn’t before we got involved. There are six listings under the “vinegar” heading. Two of them are farmer’s markets and only have vinegar if someone brings it to sell. Another listed business admits their vinegars are imported. One is a producer of apple products and though it’s under the listing, their website doesn’t mention vinegar.
      The last one hired Ron as a consultant to teach them to make vinegar. They’ve opted to send their fruit to a Wisconsin winery to convert it to wine and were quite interested in having a California company convert “their” wine to vinegar in a quick acetator process. Their website says they make their own though.
     It’s a wonderful trend that Minnesota products are becoming more complex and are trying hard to locally source the ingredients for their products. Read their labels. Ask questions. Support them!

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Why I like email marketing

     Marketing is a lot like fishing. You put out a tasty lure and hope to get a bite now and then. A lot of the time it’s like ice fishing; a cold and lonely proposition. But once in a while, it’s like sitting in a quaint little row boat on a sunny day, with a good book, a good beverage and water so clear you can see the fish swimming near the lure. Once in a while, the fishing is even better than the catching.
     A recent email from a past metaphorical fishing trip with an old friend:

I see on your website you are out of black currant vinegar. Whenever you get it in I would like 12 bottles of black currant and 12 bottles of cherry vinegar. I think my sister-in-law wants me to pick up a case of vinegar for her as well and I believe that she'll be wanting 4 bottles of strawberry and 20 bottles of cherry but I will confirm this with her and let you know. 

I have purchased vinegar from you the past two summers.

Austin, Texas

     I didn’t have to do any fishing with Marlene. She suggested the trip, 48 bottles worth, and that’s even better.
     Then there’s the recent exchange with a well-known Chicago chef. I don’t know how he heard about Leatherwood Vinegary but chances are he was out fishing (letting his fingers do the walking on the computer keyboard) for some authentic ingredients for his new restaurant. He initiated a conversation at 4:29 p.m. and it extended into the evening.

 My name is John [famous chef from Chicago] and I will be the chef at the forthcoming [soon to be famous eatery] opening in Lincoln Park (Chicago) later this summer. I would love to know if you have any wholesale distribution in the Chicago area. I would love to try some of your vinegars.
 John [famous chef from Chicago]
 [Soon to be famous] Tavern & Inn

     We haven’t expanded our distribution into the Chicago area though it is decidedly a marvelous idea. I’m sure there are dozens of gourmet shops and delis that would do a bang-up job of selling authentic artisan vinegar. But, not yet. When we sell wholesale, we normally require purchase of a case (24 bottles) to make a eye-catching display in a new venue. At this point, I didn’t know if John [famous Chicago chef] wanted to use the vinegar in his cuisine or sell it from a shelf.

Hi John,
Sorry, no distribution to the Chicago area but if you'd like to order vinegar in quantity, I'm sure we could figure something out.
Leatherwood Vinegary

     A mere dozen minutes passed between his first “send” and the following message.

Hi Nancy,
Thanks for the speedy reply!  What would be sufficient quantity and how could I go about sampling your vinegars?
 John [Famous-Chicago-Chef]

     We’ve found that we sell much more vinegar when people have a chance to taste it. In the past we have sent small tasting lures to potentially large fish but…well…actually…I thought this would just be a flash in the pan so why not enjoy the dance and offer a taste of Minnesota instead of trying to cash in on a big fish.

Hi John,
 It would be so nice to be able to do some kind of virtual tasting experience for you. But...well...let me just assure you that in ten years of having people taste our vinegars, the only ones that weren't impressed were vinegar wasn't that they didn't like our vinegar, they just didn't like vinegar. But, our youngest taster was about 8 months old and the oldest in the 90s and most love it. The fruit flavors hold the flavor of the fruits from which they are made. The herbals speak loudly of their herbal infusions.

 Normally we require a wholesale purchase of a case (24 bottles) which are priced at 65 % of retail. Since you're considering using the vinegar in your menu (is that right or is your query for retail sales?), and I assume emphasizing the local (domestic) nature of the product, we would be willing to reduce the requirement to six bottles. We ship via [a fast and dependable delivery service] in the five-state area and Chicago is included in this area. We can ship 6 bottles for about $14 though we would need your zip code to determine an exact amount.

 If you'd like to look at our current inventory on our website ( and choose six, send a check and we'll ship them. If you'd like recommendations, let me know.


     It was 11:08 p.m. and John was still on the line.
Hi Nancy,
Thanks for the helpful info.  I love your excitement about the vinegars…makes me more excited to taste and use them!  We would be utilizing them for foodservice, not retail as well.  My zip  code is 60605, although the restaurant's is different and I'm honestly not exactly sure what it is at the moment.  Here are my six to choose from…and please steer me in a different direction if you suggest something I haven't picked since you know these much better than I do).
Chokecherry (mainly because I have no idea what that is and I'm intrigued)
 Anise Hyssop in Rhubarb
French Tarragon in Grape
 Thyme in Peach

Can you send me a total and I will send you a check?  Thank you!
 John [Chicago’s finest]

     I, however, had gone to bed and didn’t get his message til the next morning. I checked with Ron and though John’s selections looked good, we only had one bottle of Anise Hyssop left and if he wanted it in any quantity, we wouldn’t be able to accommodate him until we’d made more.

Hi John,
 Your choices look like good ones. Chokecherry is a tall shrub that grows wild in this area. It has clusters of small dark cherries that are very tart. They're most often used in jelly or syrup (if the jelly maker isn't successful in getting it to gel, which happens often enough). Of course wine makers like to use them, too.

 I'd like to swap out the Anise Hyssop in Rhubarb for Basil in either Rhubarb or Tomato. As a chef you know how wonderful basil is in anything with tomatoes. Basil in Rhubarb is a very "local" thing while Basil in Tomato is a delightful twist on using basil with tomatoes. The tomato wine isn't much to write home about but when it's been converted to vinegar and infused with basil, well, it's pretty special. What do you think? (Oh, and Ron says there's only one Anise Hyssop left and if you decided to use it regularly, you'd soon be out and we may not have any more for a while. The Anise Hyssop herb is off to a slow start in this rainy spring/summer we're having.)

 So, your total for three fruit vinegars at 65% of retail ($7.80 each) and three herbal vinegars ($9.75 each) plus $12.47 for shipping equals $65.12. Be sure to include the address to which you would like it shipped.

 Thank you!

     Though up late the night before, John was awake early and thinking about vinegar again by 8:59 a.m.
Hi Nancy,
Thank you for the guidance.. I'm actually curious about both of those vinegars you suggested.. Should I swap out something else for one of them? Either way, I'll defer to you.

The address of the restaurant is [on a lovely avenue in Chicago].  Is there any way to pay online or do I have to send a check?

 John [Famous and ambitious Chicago chef]

     I’d already led poor John down a winding path so what did I have to lose?

Ooohhh...I would think you'd want to try the French Tarragon and the Thyme. For only the cost of the vinegar and 40 cents additional for shipping, you could get 7 bottles. Oh, and then there's the Scarborough Fair that has a great story. The lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel's song is from an old old poem of impossible love.

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
 Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Remember me to the one who lives there,
For once she was a true love of mine.

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Sewn without seams or fine needlework,
If she would be a true love of mine.

Tell her to wash it in yonder well,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Where never spring water or rain ever fell,
And she shall be a true lover of mine.
And on it goes for several more verses in which she responds with impossible tasks for him to do if he wants to be her lover again. Our Scarborough Fair vinegar is in mixed fruit, which in this case is a blend of apple and rhubarb. The four herbs combined with these two fruit flavors create a totally new party on the taste buds with no impossible tasks whatsoever.

But now I'm just making your job of choosing vinegar more difficult! Sorry. Eight bottles, perhaps?

      Five minutes after my discretionary digression, John had made a decision.

You sang to me via email.. Sold.  Eight it is!

 Is there any online payment available or no?

 Sorry, no, no online payment option. I keep meaning to arrange something. But checks and cash still work for us.

Ok, no problem.. Can you send me an updated total and I will put a check in the mail today?

A few days later, John’s check arrived and the eight bottles were on their way. I sent him an email so he’d know they were coming.

Hi John,
No song today. How about a movie: "You've got mail!" Well, at any rate, your vinegar is on its way  : )

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dressing for Success-ful Salads

Why a salad dressing book? Because dressing a salad is the most obvious use for Leatherwood vinegars. So many people have asked how to use the various flavors of vinegar. They often mention oil and vinegar but in a far off sort of way as if they’ve never actually dressed a salad with this most simple of dressings.

In my first vinegar-themed book Leatherwood Vinegary, a Winery Gone Sour, there is a whole chapter of recipes using vinegar. From salads to dessert, vinegar enhances and brightens the flavors of food as well as providing its own tangy acidic touch. The herbal vinegars take a step up by adding the distinctive flavor of each herb or herbal blend.

Dressing for Success-ful Salads, is a great way to start your exploration into the world of exciting salads and the sauces that dress them. We explore the world of vinegar, oil, salt, sweeteners and other ingredients for the making of dressings from classic to nouveau. Every ingredient is there for the purpose of creating flavor. Nothing is included to extend shelf life, artificially enhance otherwise inferior flavors, add thickness or create overly sweet syrupy concoctions.

Someone said recently that she wished she could taste salad dressings in the store before buying them because she was often disappointed when she tried them on her salads. How often does a bottle of dressing languish in the back of the refrigerator? How many other bottles join it as each one fails to satisfy? By learning to make your own, you will find the dressings that suit your taste profile and vanquish the banal bottles forever.

Each recipe is for a single serving. With the proper ingredients on hand, you will create a fresh dressing for each salad you make. Simply double, triple or quadruple as necessary to make the right amount for the number of people you are serving. Don’t double or triple it for your single salad; maybe you can’t eat too much salad but you can certainly overdo the dressing, calorie wise. A chart in the back of the book helps with multiplication just in case you’re cooking for a crowd or know that you like a particular recipe well enough to fill a decorative bottle that won’t languish.

The book also suggests combinations of vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, meat, cheese, as well as the greens that form the backdrop of your scenic salads. Enjoy the book and enjoy the exploration of eating well.

To order, please send a check for $5.95 (per book) plus $4 for shipping to: Leatherwood Vinegary, 20395 County Road 86, Long Prairie, MN 56347.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Foraging for Catnip

     Catnip grows wild here in central Minnesota as I’m sure it does in many places. We make a popular catnip vinegar so one of my duties this morning was to forage for some. As I weed and prune around the garden and orchard, I mentally map where I can find it when I need it. This time of year, most has already gone to flowers, with the leaves less than prime. But catnip continues to come up through the summer so I knew I’d find some young enough, maybe at the teenage stage.
     I collected a bucket and my new long-nose clippers. As I roamed, I clipped spent day lilies and hosta flowers as well as the occasional thistle. I checked the milkweeds for caterpillars but didn’t see many chewed leaves. I was pleased to see a monarch butterfly flit across the ponds. I hope it was planning to lay eggs on some of the milkweed we’ve saved for that purpose.
     Monarch eggs have suffered (if an egg can suffer) the predation by a variety of insects and protozoan parasites, seemingly reducing their numbers in recent years. About 20 years ago, we were concerned whether the monarchs would reproduce well in this area. We hadn’t seen many through that July but by the end of August we found many chrysalides hanging from the siding, statuary and lawn furniture.
     This year, and it’s already the end of August, I haven’t seen a single chrysalis, not even one caterpillar. We have plenty of milkweeds but few butterflies.
     My wandering across the yard in search of catnip led me to the best find near the chicken coop. The poor hens have been cooped up since they took a liking to strawberries and tomatoes. They even nibbled the leaves off the pepper plants when we set them out in the straw bale garden. We tried to fence them in with a makeshift fence. Though chickens aren’t high on the intelligence scale, they quickly found a way through. So, I bring them tasty morsels like melon rinds and the remnants of our meals of corn on the cob.
     The catnip was growing at the base of a huge basswood tree next to the coop. Scattered along with it was a healthy stand of deadly nightshade. That emphasizes the importance of knowing not only the plants that are useful but also those that grow alongside them.
     As I was clipping the catnip, I saw a flash of light. I thought I was seeing things until I heard a distant roll of thunder. We desperately need rain and it is in the forecast for today. The thunder was separated from the flash by long enough that I knew the lightning wasn’t close. But, flashes continued to come and each time the thunder was more immediate. I suddenly felt extremely vulnerable when several flashes were closely followed by ear-splitting thunder. There I stood, under a huge tree with a metal clipper with rubber handles and a ten-inch blade.
     What to do? I waited until the next flash and boom and then high-tailed it for the house, holding the clipper blade downward as if it would deflect the electrical charge if struck. Ron saw me coming and thought it was funny, I guess, though he hasn’t seen me run in quite a while. I didn’t linger out in the open but headed through the vinegary door while Ron stood outside looking upward. Well, he didn’t get struck, we got some rain, and now it’s moved on. 

     I washed the catnip and bagged it for the freezer. Our calico cat, Pandora, was enchanted by the bag. I gave her a stray leaf and she loved it, batting, tossing and nibbling on it. Javiar, the Maine Coon cat that belongs to our son, showed no interest at all. Our big orange tomcat, Jed, came late to the scene and ate the last bits. Catnip is a stimulant for cats so I suppose we’ll have them chasing each other through the house. It has a calming effect on humans so if you decide to try some of our catnip vinegar on your salad, you’ll enjoy the flavor and then calmly go about the rest of your day.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Blue ribbon wine

Ron has always said that it takes good wine to make good vinegar. He entered six Leatherwood wines in the Todd County Fair and was awarded six first-place ribbons.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

April at Leatherwood

We’d like to think that the growing season is on its way. Ron optimistically pruned the apple trees yesterday. Today we have 6 inches of new snow. We know it can’t last, but everyone in the area feels the pain of one more day of winter’s blast.

The vinegary has been bustling with wine-making students. Have I mentioned that Ron gives classes for individuals and small groups? Working with wine kits, home grown or purchased fruit, participants learn the science of wine-making and set up their own batch in the first class. They come back to rack-off the wine from the primary fermenters into carboys and to monitor the fermentation process. Then a few weeks later, they come back again to bottle their wine and take it home. We have everything needed for making wine: all the equipment, materials and ingredients; even the bottles, corks and corkers. Some groups come back again and again for a fun time out and a good product to take home. Email Ron for more information.

I’ve mentioned in a couple of previous posts about the new labels for our vinegar bottles. I’ve painted 11 fruit images to identify the fruit flavors of the vinegars. You can see all of them at Whimsy Home Designs. Those same images also help identify the kind of vinegar used in some of our new products: Rhubarb Vinegar Soap, Raspberry Vinegar Soap, Cranberry Vinegar Lip Whip and Raspberry Vinegar Skin Cream. For now, you can see these products on the Whimsy Home Designs website. Soon, they’ll be added to a new Leatherwood Vinegary web store.

Another recent development: the folks at Smude’s Sunflower Oil have put together a catalog of locally produced items for school fundraisers. The catalog looks great and it’s an absolutely terrific idea to offer high quality local products when the kids need to generate funds for their activities. Learn more on their website.