Monday, January 17, 2022

The wild and the tamed and the diverting

From the photo files, where I am making progress, in terms of sorting, some tidbits:

Last October, in a shoreline forest on Long Island, we found a very wonderful chicken of the woods log. We took home plenty and some of it is still stashed (after cooking) in the freezer for picnics to come. The mushroom works very well in portable hand pies.

These nasturtium capers were from green seeds I collected in my mom's Cape Town garden in February 2020. I lacto-fermented them with 2% of their weight in salt for about 20 days, then pickled them in a vinegar-brine. Here, they were nibbled on the October 2021 terrace, atop a petite Martini. They are rather good. (And I brought back a new batch, a couple of weeks ago; nasturtiums grow like weeds in that Mediterranean climate.)

Last year I bought two tea plants. I clicked a mousepad, and a few days later they were at the door. They are Camellia sinensis, and they bloom in autumn. Their buds began to open in October and the small, anemone-like flowers are lovely, lasting about two days. The little shrubs kept blooming right into winter. On the cold branches in January there are still buds, and the leaves look dark and healthy. I collected many new green shoots which I dried, and at some point - soon - I must grind them to make my very own green tea, or matcha powder. I have no idea if I like green tea. I shall find out. 

The plant in the background, lower left, is another sort of tea if you like common names: labrador tea, a species of Rhododendron. It should bloom in April, if all is well. 

And you never know. All may be well. And if it isn't, we'll make another plan.

I'm also here, @66squarefeet

Friday, January 14, 2022

What was, may be?

In freezing January it is helpful to look back at scenes of another life lived, just a few months ago. I am still sorting photos dating back to the middle of last year, and here are some good - and occasionally perplexing - moments.

The aperitif - honeysuckle cordial and basil - sipped on the warm July terrace, with the book I just bought, written by a new friend, Serena Bass. We met through social media, before feeding each other at our respective Brooklyn homes. She is a chef and formidable cook (the two don't always go together, curiously), and a truly delightful human. One of the rare ones who makes you feel special, and consequently a lesson in How to be a Better Person.

This was really perplexing. Looking at the photo I wondered...what is it? Sour cream? With garam masala? What's the golden stuff? Was it a marinade for a grilled supper? I checked the date on the digital file, checked my diary, and found a forage walk. Phew. Checked my emails, discovered the menu for the walk and... Lilac honey, cream cheese, full cream yogurt and ground spicebush (Lindera benzoin fruit). So that took eight minutes. It's slow going.

For the picnic we spread it on persimmon focaccia. Under mighty tulip trees, in an old cemetery. A good memory today, with howling wind, and grey-and-white light.

Also in July last year the Frenchman and I returned to the Hudson Valley woodland paths where we had stumbled upon a trove of chanterelles, in 2019. This beautiful green place was unreachable for the whole of 2020, while a massive COVID-testing site mushroomed (sorry) nearby and all access was shut down. We felt very lucky to find them again, and we stocked up!

One of the meals I made with the chanterelles was this one, where meatballs studded with pine nuts cooked with the apricot-smelling mushrooms in a pan sauce of vermouth and cream, gooseberries and summer squash.

Summer means lilies. The Silk Road is statuesque, and I hope the bulbs will weather the very low temperatures we have just seen, and will experience again in a few days' time. They are very cold-hardy, but it's the frozen pots that pose the problem: the base freezes and prevents drainage. The bulbs can rot. Fingers crossed. They have grown in each of my four New York gardens.

The windowboxes undergo seasonal makeovers, which gives me an excuse to shop for plants. These pretty yellow hyssops (Agastache) came from the Gowanus Nursery, and replaced the hard-working Nemesias (which are a South African wildflower; it always makes me very happy to see them).

Nemesias out (the cut flowers saved and on the table), Agastache in. On the left the flourishing bay tree (now indoors until April). 


My Books

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

A Taste of Procrastination

Japanese knotweed quick pickles, April

Back in Brooklyn from Cape Town, I am catching up on a lot of delayed freelance work (for Martha Stewart Living, mostly, and soon again for Gardenista), but there is another task that is long overdue: downloading and sorting about 3,500 images I shot last year. I know. It's something I should have set time aside for daily, but I didn't. Kyk hoe lyk jy nou, my father would say. Up that creek with a teaspoon for a paddle.

Feral asparagus, foraged in New York City

They are pictures of plants and food and foraging and gardening and animals and birds and seasons and flowers and tested recipes and food adventures and just of our lives, lived. All of them are potentially useful, some are an essential record, and all are still - dating back to about April 2021 - residing only my memory cards. That is terrible, and very insecure (should something happen to the cards). And very stupid. No back up. 

Peonies in the kitchen

So every day I bite off a chunk, for just one hour. It will get done. It helps that it is frigid January and that I am not adding - at least not wildly - to their numbers. Although I did just photograph my lunch. And breakfast. And the birds on the terrace. Oh dear.

The pictures here are just a fraction of images I looked at yesterday, and which made me smile to remember. 

This topping for pan-seared chicken breasts. Tell me I wrote it down. I know it's dandelion stems and anchovy. Plus a ton of caramelized garlic? Almost certainly lemon juice. I have a digital folder for the recipes I create. It's just called New Recipes, with sub-folders from 2017 to 2022, with recipes sorted by main - usually wild - ingredient, and almost always the name of a plant, or a mushroom. 2020's folder goes from Apples to Woodears. There's no dandelion folder. What is wrong with me? I almost always improvise when I cook and often something is so good and so simple that I'll think, Well, that was easy. I'll never forget that.


These were crisp vegetables that I had been lacto-fermenting for months. They became sweetly sour and kept their crunch. I piled them all onto a plate one warm May night with coriander and arugula flowers from our terrace, and added creamy burrata and olive oil, and dusted it all with pinches of cayenne. It was improbable, and delicious.

June Supper

And now I have an hour of photos to sort. If I want to escape for my walk before the 4.50pm sun sets.


Saturday, January 8, 2022

Up, and down again

A recent hike up Table Mountain with three friends was like a tonic. We met at 8am, and then began to walk. 

There are dozens of ways to climb up, and we chose Skeleton Gorge, on the cool western flank of the mountain, where you endure (endless) log and rock steps before climbing up (much more amusing) ladders and then scramble up boulders in the steep bed of a stream.

I love this route because it flattens for a spell, along the Smuts Track, above, and then allows you to choose to swing west along the Aqueduct, where disas, an endemic orchid, flower in summer. Watsonias dot the fynbos. Grassbirds and sugarbirds and sunbirds sing.

That's the Smuts Track in retrospect.

Photo: Marian Oliver

And the waterfall that never stops pouring pure, tea-colored mountain water. A good place to stop for a drink. 

Beautiful little drip disas (Disa longicornu) grow in the wet moss on the rock walls.

And after a downhill track you are in the kloof of the Disa River. We dipped, skinnily. It was freezing and wonderful.

And eventually it was down again, to the waiting world. This group of Belgian trail runners trotted past us at the top of Nursery Ravine. 

Clouds rose as we descended and the lower slopes were cloaked in a misty rain as we ended our walk in the early afternoon.

Next stop, Brooklyn.


Find me on Instagram @66squarefeet

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Summer, all of a sudden

From a cold picnic with hot soup beside a Northeastern mountain stream (my last post, dated November 15th), to a summer kitchen in Cape Town.  A bunch of sweetpeas from the garden, where my mom asked her gardener to remove the almost-spent plants to make way for the burgundy sunflowers I sowed for her several weeks ago, and that are now ready to be planted out.

I touched down at Cape Town International on December 2nd, on United's first direct flight from Newark, New Jersey.

In the last few days the first figs of a South African summer have arrived in supermarkets, and I am making good use of them. The best way to eat a fig is raw and ripe, or perhaps sliced into an early-evening apéritif.

And now I have some green (unripe) figs to preserve, to take back with me when I head home to Brooklyn.


(I am usually here at Instagram)

Monday, November 15, 2021

Easy tomato soup

We picnic in most weather. And when winter rolls round we need something hot to heat our frozen, mitten-wrapped paws. An easy tomato soup is one of my winter picnic staples.  

It is quicksoup, cheapsoup, cheatsoup, and it is goodsoup. It is also thrifty, nourishing, satisfying, and comforting. Take care of yourself, your family, your soul and your heart. All in one soup! (I sound like the eccentric Dr. Bronner's soap label - it's our pandemic handsoap so I know it by heart.) 

I use canned tomatoe because that is what winter is for. The fewer ingredients on the label the better. Hopefully just "tomatoes." I am partial to the Muir Glen brand, especially the fire-roasted versions.

Jazz up this basic recipe with optional extras: grated cheese (cheddar for gooey cheese-strings, or microplaned Parmesan for punch), fresh herbs, and different seasonings: Urfa biber, Aleppo pepper, East African berbere, freshly cracked black pepper, or cumin each make it interesting. 

Fast Tomato Soup - Serves 2

1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, very thinly sliced
1 large can - (1 lb 12 oz) - crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup water or broth
1 teaspoon chile flakes
1/4 teaspoon sugar
Pinch of salt - more, or less
Freshly snipped chives or field garlic

In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the garlic, stirring a little every few minutes. Cook for about 5 minutes until the slices turn translucent - do not brown.

Add the contents of the tomato can. Rinse the can with broth or water and pour that in, too. Stir, and allow the liquid to begin bubbling. When it does, turn it low enough to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook for another 10 minutes. Taste, and add the sugar, and the salt. Add the chile. Taste again. It is ready. If you used a chunky blend of tomatoes you may now want to whizz the soup around in a blender to make it smoother. Up to you. 

When it is ready our the soup into a waiting thermos. Head out for a winter picnic. Or stay in and sip quietly.