Sunday, February 10, 2019

The picnic memoirs

I was thinking about picnics. As one does. It was the day after I landed at JFK. Dark and very early in the morning, and about to become a gray wet winter day. My soul was stuck somewhere above the West Coast of Africa, trying to catch up with the plane that carried me for 16 hours from Johannesburg. It was missing morning coffee on the Cape Town terrace with sunbirds and flowers and corgis. 

Picnics cheer me up. Picnics even led, indirectly, to the Frenchman (who had written a post I chanced upon, about the challenges of photographing "a backlit saucisson on a picnic cloth somewhere near a lavender field in Provence." Tell me more, I thought!). 

So I began scrolling through some picnics I have known and written about on this blog. Some are mundane. A sandwich - but it is eaten on a rock beside a rushing mountain stream. And this makes everything taste better. Some are eaten in freezing winters. There is a lot of saucisson. There is a lot of bread (having cut down hard on wheat over the last year my picnic game has been challenged; meatballs, dips and raw vegetables have come to the rescue). There are many soups. And a lot of picnics in February! But the steady message is that picnics are good for us. Go and eat outside. Or just spread a cloth on the floor. 

Or join me on one sometime this year, in the wilds and tames of New York. 

January in the snowed-in Catskills. So cold we ate in the ZipCar. Fast tomato soup and sourdough and prosciutto sandwiches.

Another freakily warm January day Vincent and I picnicked beside the water of New York Harbor in Red Hook, a 25-minute walk from home (then on 1st Place, Carroll Gardens). The quick-pickled vegetables were supposed to make up for the floofy-soft potato bread (hiding crisp bacon and mayonnaise). 

On a much colder January day, we sipped very hot tomato-chile soup and chewed sandwiches on frigid Roosevelt Island.

In February in Prospect Park, we shared slices of cured duck breast. I noted, in that blogpost, the arrival of "an elderly Asian couple, well-insulated in big red puffer jackets, sit[ting] down to their own picnic complete with intriguing steam from flasks. After they had eaten she took a nap, head on arms on table, and he read the newspaper. It is never too cold to picnic."

February again, and in Red Hook, again - those bright blue days are irresistible.

Switch hemispheres: February breakfast picnic, Karoo-style, with rusks and coffee, beside the N1 between Beaufort West and Cape Town.

An early March picnic with the Frenchman on his birthday, out at Brooklyn's Jacob Riis Park.

And March in the still-bare Inwood Hill Park forest, I ate my chicken liver pâté with garlic mustard and field garlics and friends.

And perhaps we shared some drinks, too.

A completely different March: late summer in Cape Town, with my mom and dad and the Frenchman. The menu was: tramezzini with prosciutto, and cucumber and butter, chicken liver pâté with seed bread, garlicky shrimp in olive oil, herb and lemon roasted chicken, tomato wedges with green onions from the garden. And tiramisu.

Late April in the Catskills, with foraged ramps and farmstand sandwiches. Plus hard cider.

Lush late May at Dead Horse Bay, a spread for a happy band of paying walkers. Summer rolls stuffed with raw and pickled spring things (recipe in the fiddlehead chapter of Forage, Harvest, Feast), pokeweed tea rolls (pokeweed chapter...), sweet olive oil and spicebush loaves (a Sicilian-style recipe in the spicebush chapter), and common milkweed flower cordial to drink (yes, recipe in the common milkweed chapter).

And May in Pelham Bay, with a rare and shared beer. Don't mock our beer tastes. Miller reminds us of camping. We love camping.

The sandwich was a sour cherry sourdough I had made in the Harlem kitchen, and featured beach plum chutney with cheese and arugula.

Roll on, summer. June beside the East River in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The blog says: "I had made last-minute meatballs, spiked with finely chopped lemon grass, fish sauce and scallions. A mango and avocado salad with a little bottle of fresh lime juice, hot chiles, sugar and fish sauce, shaken and poured over on site."

And the July roof picnics, in our first Cobble Hill apartment and its 66 square feet of terrace plus all-important roof access (it is now utterly transformed by new construction). The tiny top floor apartment was incredibly hot, and we escaped to the roof's harbor breezes every evening.

This 4th of July menu reads:

Slaw of red cabbage, carrots and new peas.
Underdressed Waldorf salad of chicken, apple and celery hearts.
Frittata of eggs, potato, dill and parmesan
Pop Chips (moment of weakness)
Duck rillettes, quince pickles, pickled field garlic
Brown bread
Champagne (Duc de Romet)

July's smotheringly wet heat is the best excuse to make throwbacks like tuna mousse.

September, in Brooklyn Bridge Park, again.

And in another, southern September, I took my mom to picnic on Signal Hill, in Cape Town, post-fire and among resurgent spring flowers. Tomato soup in the mugs. Cucumber sandwiches.

One of the good things about our brief move to Harlem in 2014 was that apartment's proximity to the northern reaches of Central Park. This was a September picnic in pursuit of the hummingbirds that frequent the Conservatory Garden every autumn.

Same picnic. Raw vegetables are good travellers.

A September forage picnic at Dead Horse Bay, with quails eggs and bayberry dipping salt, mugwort crackers,  beach plum jam for wild herb cheese, juniper rillettes, and persimmon focaccia. Recipes are you-know-where.

An October picnic with my mom in the Catskills.

It was very cold, but I remember it mostly for my first taste of a local Honey Crisp apple.

And there are patterns: Back to the Catskills in another turning-leaf October, with ugly-delicious hen of the woods soup and bacon-and-garden-arugula-sandwiches.

And in December, a rolling picnic on the Adirondack train, heading for the Frenchman's family outside Montreal.

Once upon a time, I wrote:

"Sometimes, I think I picnic to stay sane.

"One might think that plates of pretty food are an indication of a sunny outlook. I say, look deeper.

"I say, the peeling and the chopping and the dressing and the arranging and the packing and the carrying and the sitting in a place where the air moves in a way that it never can indoors, are a last resort, the culinary equivalent of a rooftop-howling wolf inconsolable in its grief at the state of things. I picnic to let it all out. To say if we have nothing else, we have this."

Hungry yet?

Friday, February 8, 2019

Winter Walk to Read the Signs of the Wild

Prospect Park Winter Signs Walk
24 February 2019
11am - 1pm

Plants are not silent in winter. Even dead sticks have a lot to say. Walk with me to listen to them.

To me a winter walk is like being backstage before the show starts. When I was still performing (as an opera singer) I was always amazed that the audience knew so little of what went on behind that heavy curtain, and in the wings. But winter is what is necessary for the razzmatazz of spring.

Appreciating the apparent rigor of the frozen and dormant plant world is key to celebrating its resurgence in spring. Winter for foragers is a chance to map what is good, for the week and months to come. Winter burs mean delicious burdock stems in May - the plant grows in colonies.

We will learn to recognize the signs that wild foods leave us so that we can find them again in spring; learn them here and you can apply your pattern recognition anywhere. A dry stalk is really April's pokeweed, a brittle stick is an excellent and aromatic mugwort kebab skewer, a rattling seedhead is juicy Japanese knotweed in a few weeks' time - so that we can find them again in spring. We will scratch and sniff spicebush twigs, pounce on winter's field garlic leaves, and read the stories that bark tells.

And then we will enjoy a warming picnic of hot soup (tomato and spicebush? hen of the woods, above? - yes, the recipes will be from Forage, Harvest Feast!) and watercress hand pies as we stamp our double-socked feet.

Meet up and route-details will be emailed to you in the week before the walk.

For other late winter-early spring walks please visit my Forage Walks and Classes page.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Aperol Spritz

Despite my predilection for liquid and botanical alchemy, I am not a day drinker. Alcohol in the middle of the day cuts my legs, as the Frenchman would say, and makes me lethargic. And I hate taking naps. But when I left Cape Town many years ago, the household tradition embraced wine in the middle of the day, with lunch. It was a habit that took years for me to shake. It be shaken, now, with a cocktail in the evening and glass of wine with dinner. So when I return to the domestic stomping grounds I tend to get funny looks when I wave away the proffered bottle at lunch. But because the home tradition lives sturdily on, I adjust in order to be companionable and not the freak daytime tee-totaler. And I drink my body weight in water.

Still, the lighter, the better.

While I have the tendencies of an alchemist - brewing vermouth, waiting for vinegars to form from fermented cordials, infusing hooch with wild fruits and herbs, mixing up new cocktails - sometimes, the pouring of a classic is a quiet relief. Enter the Aperol Spritz.

It was a new drink for my mom on a balmy, blue-sky, Cape Town Sunday. The bitterness in Aperol comes from quinine, derived from a species of Cinchona. It is low in alcohol, and dashed into sparkling wine (traditionally prosecco, although here we used Graham Beck Brut - a sparkling wine made from a pinot noir-chardonnay blend, like Champagne). With a squirt of sparkling water, it is a wonderful drink - no invention required.

And no nap required.


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