Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ending and beginning

The Frenchman returns late tonight.

Which means I'd better make the bed. I mean, it's always made before I get into it, but I keep very odd hours on my own. I've had three solid days of writing and may have turned into an apartment troll. This afternoon was rather distracted, with two black swallowtail butterflies (Papilio polyxenes) visiting the terrace on cue. And then there was intricate, dangerous-looking work being done on the steeple of the damaged church by two men whose hard hats made them look like ants - they seem to be removing the other spires entirely, stone by stone. So I was popping up and down a lot.

But I have my year's worth of chapters done, at last: New York, the Terrace and Food, and now revisions begin, starting at the beginning, with January. The first draft was written out of order, in batches of seasons. Writing about October today, the light outside was strangely cooperative. Sometimes, after writing about winter, say, I emerge from my laptop to be flummoxed by a terrace in full bloom.

Better vacuum, too. Bake something. Maybe banana and macadamia nut bread. Pick some flowers. Floss the cat.

Mix a bloody drink. Now. Perhaps with this:

The black currants have lost their black to the gin. Which is divine. No other word for it.


Last week was National Moth Week in the US of A.

On the terrace, in the republic of Brooklyn, every night has been moth night. They love the agastache, above. I am amazed that there is anything left in the tiny labiate flowers for all the pollinators who visit. The bees and flies of daytime, the moths at night.

I look up sometimes, into the dark, and see their soft forms whirring from pot to pot. Up here on the top floor of this brownstone full of people in apartments, there is something comforting about their pale, silent, nocturnal work.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Black peppers and lost words

After some disappointingly small peppers ripened I was worried that the pepper crop would be a bust, but they have proved me wrong. They seem to go from flowers to peppers overnight and then keep growing. They are black rather than the advertised lilac-purple, but I find them pleasing.

Here is last night's crop, joined by some windfall green pear tomatoes. Small rain showers swept across the roof. Miniature fried green tomatoes are in my future. And in my past, a ratatouille, for supper last night. There was a summer squash, or striped zucchini, waiting for this lot down below, in the kitchen. The prospect of ratatouille did not thrill me, actually, so I was forced to add bits of pancetta and a fried slice of bread and a red wine reduction to jouge it up.

About that word. Jouge. I have never seen it spelled. Hence I cannot spell it. I have fed every conceivable spelling to Google, which keeps rolling its cyber eyes at me. In Cape Town I would say, This flower arrangement needs to be jouged up (jouge like rouge), meaning, it needs something to make it come to life, to sparkle, to sing. It might be accompanied by a flickering of the fingers...I thought it might be Yiddish. A lot of Yiddish made it into my childhood.

I have no idea where it comes from. I have not thought about it in years. Does anyone know what I'm talking about? Is it in the Oxford Dictionary of South African English? 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

On the proximity of death

This is a November picture. I remembered it (because of the lovely light) and went to find it, to look at the steeple of the church that was damaged by last week's fatal lightning strike. Because yesterday, looking at the steeple through the - cheap, kit-lense - telephoto, I saw that one entire turret is missing from the tower, not just a few stones. And not only that, but when it came down that entire NW corner's support structure was ripped out with it, like pulling out a vein from the surrounding muscle. The damage is extraordinary.

I walked past the church on Friday on my way to buy some new herbs on Court Street, but left the scene quickly. It was buzzing with television trucks and satellite dishes and newspeople in polished suits and bright ties and fake faces and it felt awful. Like flies buzzing an accident scene. Big stones lay on the sidewalk. A piece of the scaffolding you see above lay bent over the wrought iron fence on the ground. It was only in a news photo later that I saw that most of the stone had plunged directly through the roof of the church, making an an enourmous, Blitz-like gash in it.

We walk past here quite often, and every time we do I stop and search the small front garden next door and in front of Christ Church for a brown Abyssinian cat I saw there, once, who was very friendly and came out and played with us on the sidewalk. I always hope to see it again. I love Abyssinian cats. We used to have one - Minky. How odd that the man walking there that prematurely black night had no idea that these were the last steps of the last walk he would ever take. And perhaps he was scared of the storm, but stuck in it anyway, on his way home, nearby.  He was even conscious when a neighbour reached him. He spoke, and said he thought he was OK. 

My father once heard a crash outside his office (we say "chambers") in Cape Town. He looked out and saw a man, a colleague, lying on a roof far below. As he lay there on his back he reached into his shirt pocket and took out his glasses and put them on his face, a calm reflex. And then he lay back and died. He had jumped.

I know it's ghoulish. 

But I can't get over the fact, ever,  that we just sit eating our dinner with no idea of what is happening a couple of blocks away. Why don't we feel it? I know that that is life. That right now people might be dying or suffering, or hurting (we live near a hospital and a nursing home), and that if we knew all of it all of the time we would go mad. And if we spend a lot of time thinking about it we go mad, anyway. But surely if we felt it more we would have fewer conflicts, and no war, because we can imagine the unimaginable and cannot live with the sensation. 

Instead we go on dropping bombs in absentia. Flying killer drones from comfortable chairs in Colorado. Or Syracuse

We'll be back to flowers and food tomorrow. Because they are my antidote.

Saturday, July 28, 2012


Vince has just left for a short visit to Rockport, north of Boston, where his mother holidays every summer, a much-anticipated escape from Quebec. For writing-reasons I decided I had to be Sensible, and stayed behind. I am rather sad to be missing the journey with him - we travel well - and the water and the flowers and the lobsters, but it will be good for him and his mom Germaine to spend some time together, just the two of them. She doesn't know he's coming, and as he's about to arrive and she is not likely to read my blog, I think the secret is still safe.

We had a celebratory-sad supper of spiedini before he left. I haven't made them for years. The idea came originally from a book of Antonio Bugialli's, The Best of... (good gracious, it was published by...my publisher, yay! Stewart Tabori  and Chang, now an imprint of Abrams) which was the second recipe book I think I ever owned, Stateside, having relied hitherto on my mother's library of cookbooks. Actually, I did have a Rupert the Bear cookbook when I was little. I wasn't impressed. And the first book I bought Stateside was The Cookery of the Eastern Mediterranean, by Paul Wolfert. I opened that recently, after a long hiatus, to discover that she has several recipes for wild greens.   I hadn't noticed before, intent on stuffed peppers and aubergines. The book is as culturally rich and informative as it is stuffed with recipes.

Anyway, back to Bugialli - I threaded bread and good mozzarella onto skewers and toasted them under a flaming broiler. Last night the mozzarella and the skewers parted ways so I had to scrape all the melted cheese up and slap it on top of the bread. No matter. Over that I poured melted butter and anchovies (the little fish really do dissolve), finishing it with a scattering of hot dried chile flakes. We drank cold rosé, and ate an arugula salad for our digestions' sakes. And that was it.

I ordered this once at a place called John's in the East Village. It is a very old school Italian American joint, much loved, even revered. But I was appalled by my spiedini, which filled a plate in all directions and was soaked in oil and indigestible. The portion size was gross, in the original sense of the word. I wonder if Mayor Mike knows about it. He should ban it along with his giant drinks. Fran Lebowitz calls him the mayor of minutiae.

It can be such a good dish. Try it.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Cobble Hill storm

(See Vincent's much better storm pictures in the link).

The storm we were waiting for seemed to come slowly last night. After looking at the wide band of orange and red pushing towards the East Coast from the west on radar maps, and reading about the slight potential for a tornado to touch down, I went up to the roof to check on the farm and the stability of the pots. I shoved a few pots around, herding them together, picked some shiso leaves, looked at the unremarkable, flat white sky towards Jersey, and went back downstairs to finish making supper.

We were already eating when the room turned dark. Black clouds hung above the skylights. We both rushed back to the roof, loaded with cameras for pictures. After one look I rushed straight back down again. Didn't like it. Vince stayed, with his metal tripod, and I said a prayer for him (like other Africans I address my ancestors, in this case my grandmother, whom I reserve for important issues, like finding a husband, flying planes and storm-protection).

Vince took some pictures, climbed down, battened the hatch. The sky emptied on top of us, the wind tossing the oaks across the road. We continued with supper. There was little thunder, but at one point a bright tangle of lightning broke the dark far beyond the fig tree. It frightened me, and I covered my face in my hands. Vince laughed. His back was towards it. It looked so awful.

And it was awful, we learned today. It killed a man on Clinton Street, who had been walking beside the church with the turret-like spire, the one that appears in so many of my pictures from the roof. The church had been struck, and stone had tumbled down onto scaffolding below, collapsing it. The scaffolding or stones fell on him.

We heard the sirens, above the rain. We thought perhaps branches had come down.

Live like there's no tomorrow

First there was one. Working in feverish circles amongst the yellow anthers.

Then there were two.

Then perhaps the pollen ran out in the top flower.

These are the fall anemones. 

In July.

Perhaps there is no tomorrow.

So do something nice today. 

Kiss a bee. Or something.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Insalata Caprese

This was my solitary lunch yesterday.

I had spent some hours cleaning up the roof farm - pulling out non-performers, and those who have outdone themselves (two of the striped zucchini) and sowing some herb and leaf seeds, as well as a wild card. Melons. Heck, who knows? I didn't start watermelons this year, and have no idea what will happen with seeds sown in late July. I have hope.

The tomato is one of two big Striped Germans I picked. I am fond of them. They are the second of the large tomatoes to have ripened up top, after the first Black Krim, and they taste very good. Their flesh is a mix of dark green and red. This one was still warm - very warm - from the baking roof.

It was a gorgeous day; hot, yes, but dry. The sky was blue. The harbor was green. A wind off the water. Stunning. I collected the bits of basil from the terrace, layered the leftover pieces of buffalo mozzarella, gave it all some nips of salt and crackings of pepper, and at last some green olive oil.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Brooklyn bitters

I hate to talk about making bitters when it's the latest cool thing to explode into the mainstream from Brooklyn. Just pretend I have my fingers in my ears and am going lalalalalalala and haven't heard and am doing my own foraging thing. Except that I'm not. While I have been infusing alcohol with various foraged botanica for a couple of years, now - sweet fern, spice bush berries, Juneberries, beautyberry -I have not made bitters for bitters' sake.

So it's time.

We are at peak wild cherry season right now. The tiny fruit drop off the tall trees when black-ripe, and cause mockingbird squabbles high in the branches. The tree above is in Dumbo, on a quiet cul de sac between a mansion and a sewage plant.

And in Green-Wood Cemetery, raccoon scat at the base of the trees showed ample and pebbly evidence of  wild cherry orgies. That place must be rocking at night.

I stopped under the local Cornelian cherry this afternoon and picked a bagful.

And no, I did not go to the trouble of tracking down Everclear, the highest proof alcohol around, so perhaps I am a bitters dilettante. But we'll see. I have some cherry leaves, satisfyingly lethal in large doses, some pits, cracked, the fruit, and a few other bits and bobs.

We'll talk in a month.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Trouble in Eden

Lest you think we paint too rosy a picture. 

Sure. We got problems. Like the Brandywine leaves above, turning a rich yellow, rapidly. I picked them all off not to cure the plant but to see just how rapidly the yellow takes over each large leaf. It must be an imbalance or deficiency. The blossoms are dropping, too, and I have two small green tomatoes after all the fuss of growing them from seed. I know. That's not the point. But, still.

Not to worry: we have Green Zebras.

...yeah. That's the same tomato, flipped. Blossom end rot. Calcium deficiency brought on by fluctuations or extremes in the moisture content of the growing medium. Too dry, too wet, too dry. Consistent moisture prevents this. It has only happened in two pots, and I could have predicted it, noticing how those particular plants sucked up water before the others. 

And this. A lone Yellow Pear tomato wilting from the stem down, leaves shriveling and crisping. Two other plants in the same pot are unaffected.


And how about my Physalis, whose leaves disappeared overnight...I knew. I knew at once. 

Tobacco hornworm caterpillar. In the green flesh.

He is no more.

So, a lot going on. 

And yet, and yet. We have this, too. Squash flowers and squash and peppers and cherry tomatoes and the second Striped German and the first ripe Physalis and roses from the rose that was supposed to die. And even more trout lettuce.

To garden is to experience failure, yet for every plant that keels over there are more that flourish. Gardening is a lot like living - a messy, dirty experience whose occasional rewards make up for a great deal of time spent on your knees.

Monday, July 23, 2012


Visit the Jersey Shore with Vince. 

If you're brave.

Jacques Torres

Passion fruit and vanilla soft serve for me. Marzipan and pistachio ice cream for him.

We forget about the ice cream at Jacques Torres in Dumbo. But then we remember again. About once a year, which is good.

In the middle of a long walking loop from home to assess the ripeness of  the beach plums growing beside the East River, we broke for ice cream, one block back from the water.

We had been hoping for last year's strawberry-balsamic-basil confection. Disappointed at first not to find it, I cheered up at the prospect of passion fruit sorbet in soft serve form, coiled into real vanilla ice cream.

I licked without reservation. Things got a bit desperate as the sun shone and my licking failed to keep pace with the dripping but I managed to do some serious damage before the Frenchman was compelled to control the situation and wolf my cone in two bites.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Really pink gin

This is not pink lemonade.

I can't say that I am happy with the colour, which makes it look like the ultimate in girly drinks. The gin has been turning gradually more cerise in an imposing decanter on the drinks tray, filled with red currants, poured after three weeks of maceration. Or would that be infusion? And tell me the difference. No, wait. The difference is presumably that with maceration one eats the fruit and with infusion one tosses it after it has surrendered its flavour. Kind of like some marriages.

Anyway. Diluted, it turns rosebud pink minus one. It tastes a lot less delicate than it looks, and pretty good, too, despite the "pretty". Topped with lots of cold bitter lemon (blame Gabriella Hamilton who had it on Prune's drinks menu. There,  it was plain gin and bitter lemon, served on ice in a glass whose heft was excused by its preternatural thinnness. A pleasure to hold, and tempting to bite).

Add some lime slices and ice.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Cornelian cherries

These are ripe now, and they must be picked. They are not cherries, of course, but dogwoods: Cornus mas.  Natives of the region around the Black Sea. Tough as nails, and one of the earliest bloomers of the year, belonging to yellow March - a cloud of small flowers. That reminds me - perhaps I should check the trees on the western edge of Battery Park.This tree is one of three outside an apartment building a couple of blocks from home and one is especially heavy with fruit. It is beginning to drop on the sidewalk. The deep red, almost mahogany-dark fruit are the ripe ones, tasting of sour, soft plums. The crimson fruit are crisp and more sour, and probably higher in pectin, so fine for jelly.

This is fall fruit. Well, it was a fall fruit. I think we need a new season. On the terrace the fall anemones and fennel are in bloom. Things fall apart.

And I think it is time I bought a food mill. Seeds, pips, pits. Life is becoming too short to strain.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Boerewors spices

Boerewors spices

Well, if nothing else, at least I'll be the woman who brought boerewors to the Northeast.

On this beautifully cool, soft-rainy day my butcher calls me and says worriedly, We need your help.

Seems orders for boerewors are coming in from out of state thanks to my obsessive posting about my search for the elusive taste of the South African sausage - the ubiquitous and edible, if sinuous and slippery (might explain a few things), backbone of that nation, and about Los Paisanos as ground zero for its making in this hemisphere. Despite the recipe on my food blog seems people don't want to make their own spice mix. Huh. Tsk. Lazy.

A braai at No. 9 in Cape Town

At first I offered to grind all the spices myself, but then caught myself and thought, Hell, no! You know how long it takes to grind out a couple of tablespoons of pepper. Long! And to stamp fine all those singed coriander seeds? Long!

We just had a 6lb batch made up and it is the best so far. Now just a little more fat to the mix and I think we are there.

I have been tinkering at the spice mix for almost two years, starting with the recipe my university friend Vissie sent me from the badlands of Australia where he is a now fancy archaeologist. A lot more black pepper, a little garam masala, a splash more malt vinegar. Cloves, nutmeg. Allspice. A shovelful of coriander.  All the recipes I have found on the Internet are carbon copies of one another. Cut, paste, cut, paste. I, on the other hand (cue virtuous boy choir cathedral music), have sweated over the formula, doubting memory, interrogating the Frenchman, chewing suspiciously.

The recipe will now be emailed to Pedro at Los Paisanos. I am letting my baby go into big bad Brooklyn unsupervised, all rights to its future and education relinquished. 

It's for the good of the nation.

Union Street

A curb planting on Union Street at 3rd Avenue was still attracting bees yesterday evening as we passed it on our way to Al di la for supper.

Our walk kept being interrupted by plants and plant people. Behind us, back west, a yellow and pink front garden on Union below Smith Street delayed me. Then, crossing the ghastly canal, chalky and turgid (I love the Gowanus, but it was especially bad last night) we ran into Kirsten and her boyfriend John weeding and watering the garden I have photographed in so many seasons. They say they have been away and that it has been neglected for many weekends. Weeds and dead stuff lay in piles. The sunflowers were beginning to flower. Weird weather.

And then there was this. A long block higher. I think I left burned rubber on the cement sidewalk as I screeched to a halt.


A man was tending to it as I gawped. He smiled. I smiled. We both knew. So. Wrong.

Many people stop and look at it, he said, But they don't get it. They just see pretty flowers.

Yeah. Pretty flowers and fruit at the same time. In July.

My bees are liking it, he said, and pointed to a honey bee. His honey bee. The hives are up above, on his roof. He's about to harvest. I'll get about 50lbs this time, he reckoned.

And on we walked. Up the block to that picture at the start, and the now-identified honey bees bouncing into the hyssop flowers.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The New York Times and 66 Square Feet

Randy Harris for The New York Times

While I was putting the finishing touches to supper last night (caramelized pork ribs and shiso and a spicy salad), I realized that the New York Times article about us and the terrace had gone live on their site. The article appears in print in today's edition of the newspaper.

Penelope Green wrote about two tiny New York garden spaces. She wrote about us and the cat and the garden and the book-in-progress. She wrote beautifully. Also, she wrote very generously, and very kindly. In a way holding me to a standard to which I aspire. It was humbling.

It's hard to know what else to say. Except, thank you.

Clear weather

The temperatures yesterday were stunning. 99'F/37'C. After the sky collapsed on us and rainwater turned gutters into cataracts they dropped by 20'F. One remembers early June, fondly.

The new roses: the red Munstead Wood is not enjoying July. The flatleaf parsley has bolted, muttering imprecations about impossible climates. So I need something new to fill its pot.

Pink Abraham Darby (in bud, behind the echinacea) keeps right on trucking. I never did throw out the diseased but much-loved specimen. It lives on the roof, in blooming quarantine. It still suffers from the dread die back, but the living part sends forth irrepressible canes every year.

Gin infused with cucumber and red currants, plus tonic. Say that, fast. And it is surprising how fast some slices of cucumber impart their flavour. To gin or to water, for that matter. The evening ritual. Roof farm inspection with drink. The calabacita squash sent new tendrils out so its execution has been delayed. Above it is the strange ground cherry (Physalis sp.). And an errant chard leaf.

Up here it is all about the tomatoes, now. The waiting... Skinny purple eggplants get longer every day - I'm thinking something sweetish with soy, for them. And miso. I have cleared my troughs of trout lettuce going to seed and need ideas. What to put in them? Chervil? 

And last night we ate our first big shiso leaves, wrapped around succulent bits of lemon grassy pork rib.

Big hit. Now, how fast can they make more?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dune spinach

Dune spinach, Kommetjie, Cape Town

Even as the season in New York is gearing up towards ripe beach plums and summer mushrooms I remember that I never finished writing about the foraged herbs we ate at Kobus van der Merwe's restaurant - and my current favourite in South Africa - Oep ve Koep (Western Cape Afrikaans dialect for Oop vir Koop, or Open for Business), in Paternoster. That was when summer in South Africa was in full swing. If I eke the menu out carefully here perhaps I will be eating there again in person by the time I get to dessert. I can't wait.

Dune spinach. It was draped across what the menu described as Sandveld dumplings, which resembled, very closely (and intentionally), pirogis, and with quite the same heft. A deprived vegetarian would sink her teeth into the pasta covering, but at the height of summer a more tender bite would have appealed to me. Nevertheless, the excellent flavour of the filling, and the dish as a whole, plus the excitement of eating a new plant pushed that reservation to my already-cluttered back burner. This was the middle of many courses and everything so far had been sterling - in concept and in execution (click back for the watermelon salad - with Tabasco sorbet; the fig and bread salad, and the divine mussels with Tulbaghia).

Oep ve Koep's Sandveld dumplings

While writing this post I checked on the botanical name for dune spinach - Tetragonia decumbens, and emailed Rupert Koopman, a botanist with Cape Nature and a friend of Kobus van der Merwe's who has helped with identifying the foraged components on the menu at Oep ve Koep. We met on my last trip to Cape Town. Rupert emailed back at once:  "Are you psychic? I've just (ten minutes ago!) been walking on the beach in Cape St Francis munching on duine-spinasie..." 

Made me homesick. And jealous.

Rupert led a foraging walk with Kobus at the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve (where Vince and I camped a couple of years ago on our way back from Namibia) last year and may do so again. He describes it as "veldkos with a lot of fynbos conservation brainwashing included gratis." Veldkos is field food, or wild food, Afrikaans to describe anything that can be eaten from the veld or wild. Veld is a very hard word to translate. Where I grew up, in the Free State, it meant grassland. But I have heard real Capies, surrounded by fynbos, describe wild spaces in the Cape as veld, too. The Afrikaans poet, author, food writer, botanist and medical doctor (those were the days - when you did not have to describe your person in one word), C. Louis Leipoldt writes: "Veldkos may be interpreted in two senses, either as "food produced by or derived from the veld" or "food to be eaten on the veld", veld being any uncultivated part of the countryside.

Dawn on Cape Columbine  - our campsite in 2009

The dune spinach topping my Sandveld dumplings was startling at first. How do we describe food entirely new to our palates? It is a rare experience, a new flavour, and perhaps it is why I am drawn to foraging. To anyone who likes or needs to cook, ingredients are key. Dune spinach is a succulent plant, geared for life in hot and sandy conditions, and so when cooked one's teeth sink into it, rather than tearing it. An assertive flavour, unlike anything I have experienced. A faint prickle on the tongue suggested oxalic acid (think intense spinach). It was a good foil for the mild and creamy potato filling.

Fishing boats at Paternoster

I found my own dune spinach back in Cape Town, growing in the grass beside the sea of the Kom, at Kommetjie, near our good friends the Friedman's house, with its best view in the whole of Cape Town, beside the most beautiful aloes. A dream location. I picked a handful and presented it at home to Selina, matriarch of morogo, and she regarded it suspiciously but with great interest. Her foraging belongs to farmland and inland fields; she did not grow up with shoreline.

Dune spinach from the Kom

But I think she might enjoy Oep ve Koep and Kobus' experiments with indigenous food. And perhaps we might even be able to join a walk with Rupert.

For now, in our northern hemisphere summer (which is not kidding around), I shall content myself with local greens. Sea rocket is still growing strong. And I know where it lives.