Our world famous ginger ale has been a runaway success. As the house drink here on Springy Banks, folks expect it when they come over. Fair enough, it is exquisite, and I do believe in giving the people what they want. (Much as I'd like to, I can't say I always believe in giving people what they deserve, but that's not usually a culinary matter.)
So it was with great excitement that Steve and I introduced home made Sassafras Root Beer last weekend. It is so unusually tasty, making it well worth the effot. What fresh ginger does for ginger ale, sassafras root does for root beer. It's a revelatory "so this is what root beer is supposed to taste like" delight. Think of the difference between maraschino cherries and the sprightly fresh ones of summer. Or canned black olives compared to juicy kalamatas. Dorothy's wonderment stepping out of the black and white world of her tornado-tossed house into the Technicolor glory of Munchkin land. That my friends is home made Sassafras Root Beer.
The Boy Scouts taught me many skills, many still highly useful. My merit badges for Nature and Forestry make identifying sassafras trees a snap. Luckily I haven't had to draw on the lessons of the Fire Safety badge, though those were vital in extinguishing the notorious brush fire at Blackberry Hollow. As the blaze was caused by our own egregious flaunting of the most basic rules of campfire safety, Troop 315 thereafter bore the shame of a worn-out welcome at Camp Beaumont in High Ridge, Missouri for the duration of my years in scouting.
So last weekend out a-scouting we did go — Steve, I and our beautiful hounds Sailor and Croce. Although we have three prime sassafras trees growing in the woods edging the front yard, these are 15-foot high, mature specimens. It would be a shame to lose them as well as a major pain to dig up the roots. Foraging for root beer-worthy roots calls for much younger trees, so our quest took us a little deeper into the Northwest Woods of East Hampton.
Shrubby sassafras is easily identifiable because of their unusual leaf shapes. Every tree has three distinct leaves, no matter the height or age of the tree. Basic pointed oval leaves grow alongside tri-pronged versions with mitten-shaped versions fluttering in between. Each leaf is similar is size and their placement is evenly distributed on every bough.
We found two 5' tall sassafras trees in not too far from the house. Smaller start-up sprouts a foot or two high pull up easily enough, but the amount of root they bring up with them is pitiable. Sassafras trees spread by sending out runners. Instead of a familiar ball shape of roots, when you yank them up you get a central knot five inches or so below the surface with a foot or so of connective runners growing out horizontally in different directions. We found that five foot trees are the outer limit of what you can extract from the earth by hand.
Cut the roots from the trunks and scrub them well. A small hand saw made cutting up the thicker easy enough, regular gardening snippers made short work of the more slender shoots. The root beer aroma is pleasantly pungent when you chop these up into lengths that will fit your pot.
The rest is simple. Boil the roots with some additional spices including star anise and coriander seed. Strain well, mix in an equal amount of sugar and boil again to make the flavorful root beer syrup base. Add sparkling seltzer and enjoy!
One last thing: you cannot put on too much insect repellant all over, skin and clothes. Don't fear the DEET folks, if it hasn't killed you yet something else is bound to do you in first.