Monday, March 31, 2014

Inwood, in the early spring rain

It was touch and go with my first plant walk of the season, in Inwood Hill Park on a drizzly Saturday. In the end I decided on Go, and went. Most of the people who signed up arrived, bravely.

The Inwood Greenmarket was open, even in the wet. Winter fare, mostly - apples, cider, root vegetables. But also greenhouse-grown greens...

...and very good looking seafood, including calamari, eels, and shad roe, from the Seatuck Fish Company. Shad makes me think of ramps, and ramps make me think of the Catskills, and suddenly spring seems very near, and I must start planning weekends around wild foods.

Bins for your frozen kitchen scraps, destined to become city compost.

And a new, Cyrillic sign at the park's entrance. I understand completely. Surely Spanish would make more sense in this neighborhood? Curious. And why no martinis?

In the park, the forest is waking up  v  e  r  y  slowly. The spicebush (Lindera benzoin) buds were still closed, but the twigs fragrant. Galanthus nivalis, the snowdrop intruder from Europe, at least gave us hope. 

As we walked along a path two downy woodpeckers paused just a few feet way from us, quite unafraid. We also saw a red bellied woodpecker (which has a confusingly red head) and a white-breasted nuthatch.

We found lesser celandine beginning to emerge, battered by the unusual snowfall of this winter, about a gazillion garlic mustard microgreens, a couple of early edible day lilies, just emerging, and much evidence of pokeweed. All good signs for later in spring.

Towards the end of our botanical tour, and quite a bit wetter than when we started, a sharp-eyed walker spotted these in the woods. I thought they might be ancient hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa), but it is more likely that they are in fact chicken of the woods. There is only one way to find out, and that is to return in the summer, when there might be fresh, bright orange ones. It would be quite exciting if that turns out to be the case. Because they are dee-licious. 

A plant I did not recognize at this early stage, below, is motherwort, an invasive from Europe and Asia, in the mint family - Leonurus cardiaca. It grows very tall. Herbalists love it, and also like to disagree about its uses. I think it might be an interesting potherb (a term I like a lot) to flavor Various Things. 

I'll return over the next couple of months, to find field garlic and garlic mustard, and to see the violets, Solomon's seal and Dutchman's breeches in bloom. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Cat grass

Growing in the bedroom (Siberia by night, airy snowfield by day) - good for cat grass, leaning into the sun when it shines through the windows, sometime past noon.

The little furry fella likes it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sourdough - the boule

This was a happy moment. 

Sourdough  has been dogging me for weeks. The starter I, er...started...early in March, has been fed daily. Lately, it has been fed twice daily. After that first bright and peppy starter instruction I read, I realized that things were A Little More Complicated. I have felt persecuted, yet driven. 

And after three disappointing attempts at loaves (although each was an improvement over its predecessor) I started to read more widely, and with more insight as my familiarity with the starter-beast grew. I have been glued to the kitchen. Literally. Starter has to be the stickiest substance on the planet. 

Then I stumbled upon a sourdough tutorial, on Stella Culinary, and I learned more. Especially about stretching and pulling. Or is it slapping and tickling? Anyway. During the course of an evening I slapped that dough around, before turning and folding it, and allowing it to rest, just the way the man said, as many times as he said, and remembered a word I haven't thought about in a long time: technique. A word I absorbed from the old school French books that taught me to cook. If you don't have it, ain't gonna work.

At last, I put the tender raw loaf into my largest Le Creuset pot, which had been heated for 45 minutes in a raging oven. 

And the result was gorgeous. It even sang, as its crust cooled. I taped that. It was 1.26a.m. and I nearly woke the Frenchman, but I restrained myself.

So now I get what the fuss is all about.

It is huge. A week's worth of bread. 

And it tastes wonderful. For breakfast I ate it with the last of my black currant jam, from last year's fruit.

For supper it was grilled sandwiches - cheddar and mustard, and wilted dandelion with prosciutto, the hot bread rubbed with garlic as I lifted it from the cast iron pan.

So - thanks to Sarah, and her BK17 sourdough loaves, and thanks to Upstairs Wolfgang who asked me to feed his starter while he pressed olive oil last November, and thanks to Jacob Burton, the chef who made that video. I would also like to thank the Academy, my dog and my mom.


The sourdough bug has bitten me, and our bread life will never be the same again.

And to quote a Cape Town chef, who utters this phrase with a beatific smile, as often as he breathes:

Hap-py days! 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Our Neighborhood Place...?

This is a community garden on our block in Harlem. It has been padlocked since we moved here.

I don't know.

It's tempting.

But taking this on may take more gees (Afrikaans for spirit - the 'g' is more a hiss than guttural) than I am willing to muster. If we were in residence longer, maybe. I imagine there is a complicated back story, and that unpicking it and dealing with all the loose ends and sewing it together again would take powers of diplomacy envied by the UN.

I considered some guerilla gardening. I had visions of sneaking beautiful purple runner beans into the soil so that they can snake up the wrought iron fence (expensive! - someone campaigned for that; then what happened?). But there is chicken wire at its base - to keep out cats, I am guessing. So my hands can't reach. Wire cutters? Serious gloves?

But there it is. A sad sight, and provocative to one who gardens. There are even some raised beds. That cherry tree will bloom in about six weeks. Meantime, garbage accumulates.

Still. Maybe I'll make a phone call or two, and ask around. I'm curious.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Life is too short not to eat potatoes

Over at 66 Square Feet (the Food), there is a recipe for German potato salad.

Because you can never have too many recipes for potato salad.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Southern butterflies

African monarchs in Limpopo Province, South Africa.

And leaving the Kruger, heading back south to Cape Town, some many miles away. This day would end on a dairy farm in the Free State, at dusk, where we met a man who loved milk.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What light on yonder duck breasts breaks...?

Duck prosciutto hanging from the high kitchen ceiling. The light is reflected from the windows across the road.

One breast is flavoured with Northeast-indigenous spicebush (bright yellow when crushed, and orange-piney in fragrance), the other with Turkish sumac. They were cured for four weeks in the fridge in a mixture of salt, sugar, pepper and the two spices.

They should be ready in about three weeks.

Which will be exactly a year after we last tasted them, on that Brooklyn terrace...

Which reminds me. Seed trays (far right): must buy.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sweetfern catkin season

Sweetfern bourbon redeemed, after a lip-puckering attempt at a Manhattan about a week ago. It was undrinkable, and went down the sink.

Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) has a distinct flavour and takes some work to pair successfully, in a drink. The vermouth was a mistake. A better combination was a light orange syrup, made by reducing freshly squeezed orange juice till almost sticky, then shaking it like mad with the sweetfern-infused bourbon.

A pleasingly brown drink, for the tail end of winter.

Hello, spring!

Quite soon, sweetfern catkins will appear. They are tender and very fragrant. If you have any growing nearby, start picking and experimenting. The catkins (and leaves) can be chopped very finely and turned into fresh rubs, or used whole to perfume slow-cooking, gamey meat. If I had smoker (hm...maybe I should get a small one) I could imagine smoking trout, or chicken breasts over the dried leaves.

They infuse alcohol quickly - strain them out after a week or two. Sweetfern bourbon  is very good added to hard apple cider, and to slugs of dry sparkling wine, to chicken liver mousses, and rabbit terrines. There is sweetfern gin, of course. And don't forget sweetfern syrup.

But that's just me. You might find another successful combination.

This shrub is an excellent indigenous herb but is little-known and under-appreciated. And not only edible, but is reputed to repel insects; I'm told that it actually works, by someone who used to rub the leaves on her horse's skin to deter stinging creatures on long sticky rides.

And since I have also been told recently that Harlem mosquitoes are bigger, bite harder and shoulder aside screen doors with more insouciance than anyone's else's in the city, perhaps I should encourage at least one sweetfern shrub on the terrace, and put the theory to the test.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Red wine cake

I baked a cake and I laid an egg. Guess which took longer...

I am recipe testing for a magazine. Not my recipes. And when I may, I shall tell you more about them, and where to find them. For now, the neighbours are very happy (and the fridge is groaning with butter, eggs, cream cheese...).

Half this cake went upstairs to Wolfgang, and the top floor girls will receive others for a birthday, tomorrow.

This was delicious.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


I try to keep stuff off the fridge. I do. But one becomes attached. These are the final hold outs. The cocktail menu from my Brooklyn book launch. A birthday card from me to the Frenchman, bought in Cape Town. A kitty cookie cutter, give to me in Koringberg by  a Voer blogger who lives in Toronto, fra from home; a photo of Storbie, taken by Wolfgang, upstairs and left for us at our door; and an Airstream post card, included as a small bonus with a purchase I made on Etsy.

Oh... I would love an Airstream. But how the hell does one do that? Six months to a year on the road, across the US of A, eating and cooking and feeding people along the way. Learning the country. Gathering it in groups of four and six and ten or two or just one, around a fold out table covered with a red and white checked cloth. Listening to it talk at night, with moths flapping against the glass chimneys of the oil lamps. The fire still warm. Local produce eaten. Local labourers or farmers or gardeners fed. The cat staring at us through the small window, opening his mouth in a silent Eep, the Frenchman yawning and impatient to get to the previous days' photos of countryside on his computer. The stars wide at night.


What's on your fridge?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Gardening while freezing

My Harlem terrace gardening began a few days ago, when I planted a modest packet of fava beans. They are the earliest crop, and one plants them around the time crocuses open. And here in Harlem, on the slopes below Columbia University and the Cathedral of St John the Divine, the crocuses have opened.

On Saturday, when I saw a nursery trolley of pansies, violas and miniature daffodils outside Best Yet, a neighbourhood supermarket, I fell for it. At least , for the violas. The price for a flat (48 plants) was about half what it is at the nurseries and plant shops I have visited in Brooklyn and elsewhere in Manhattan.

And that is why I gardened on the terrace yesterday, in temperatures hovering around freezing, despite the Frenchman's admonitions about frostbite. True, when I came indoors, while my core was perfectly warm, my toes and fingers were not. But now we have spring flowers that will last till the really warm weather.

I gave my roses some food, too. And sowed grass for the cat.

And all that made me really happy.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Inwood Field Garlic Walk

Pickled field garlic in sherry vinegar

Got field garlic?

I decided to put off my first plant walk of the spring, because of the deep and lingering cold. 

The Inwood Field Garlic Walk will now take place on Saturday, March 29th.

If you'd like to join us (join us!) for the walk - with picnic break (hey, it's me: you know I can't walk without a picnic) - please sign up via PayPal, below. Or, if you fancy your chances on the ponies, follow the link to Edible Manhattan where they are offering two free spots ($60 value) to one participant in their "what will you be growing this year?" survey.

Dutchman's breeches - Inwood

Inwood Field Garlic Walk
29 March, 11am - 3pm

Late March and the forest floor in Inwood is still crackly with brown winter leaves. But the spicebush may have woken into citrusy bloom,  early violets might have opened, and there may be an owl... There are edible and invasive daylilies here, as well as the notorious yet delicious garlic mustard. It sends out chemicals into the soil that prevent other plants from growing. in terms of conservation, it is awful. In the kitchen, it is yummy.

Invasive field garlic is one of the first plants to appear after winter, and is a versatile kitchen staple for me.

On the walk, learn to spot and identify wild edibles, as well as other native and exotic plants.

This is an interesting and little known part of the city, unless you live in that neighbourhood: On one side, the Spuyten Duyvil, separating Manhattan island from the mainland, and on the other, the mighty Hudson, separating us from Governor Christie.

It's one of my favourite spring walks.

Pack a lunch for a forest picnic. Field garlic snack provided.

Bathroom at start and end of walk.

We meet at 11am sharp at the entrance at Seaman Avenue and Isham, returning there by 3pm or a little earlier. The closest subway is the A to 207th. More details for confirmed walkers closer to the time.


Field garlic oil

Friday, March 14, 2014

Lenox Avenue's hate speech the corner of West 123rd, courtesy (again) of the Reverend James David Manning, who, a passerby named Abdellah told me, "has quite the following."

And what do you think, I asked Abdellah, who was dressed to kill. Oh, he said, I'm a 50's baby boomer. I'm a liberal. You know what I think.

"Jesus would stone the homos."

"Stoning is still the law."

How is this not incitement to violence, and why should it not be restricted, by law? How is this sheltered under the First Amendment? How has this been allowed to remain high above Lenox Avenue, for weeks?

How is hate speech allowed to remain in public view in a neighborhood where getting beaten up because you're "different" is not that unusual.

It gets better: baiting, so fearful, it is cartoon-like.

This is not harmless.

This has to come down.

I have never encountered the kind of loud and proud homophobia - phobia is the wrong word: this is persecuting aggression - that I have in a few months in two linear blocks of beautiful Lenox Avenue. The Saturday night preachers on 125th - the enormous and billy club-armed Black Hebrew Israelites in their, may I say, very camp black outfits which resemble the offspring of a tangling of punk Goth and medieval jester, who shout into the crowd about fags and homos and the bitches who can't control their men.

And there is this. Take it down.

This man's comment about the yellow sign: "Probably a homo who put it up...heheheh."

Update: 3-19-14: inspired by this sign, a fund has been started to raise money for donation to the Ali Forney Center, which works to house homeless and runaway LGBT youth.

And to follow up some more. This makes Monty Python look forced. Enjoy Jennifer Louise Lopez.

Roast duck on Canal Street

Habit. Reassuring, calming, steadying.

Or myopic and insular.

Fifteen years I have been walking past this place. Fifteen years.

Today I walked in.

But not before an actual confrontation with myself on the sidewalk, on Canal Street, in a freezing wind. I walked past. Stopped. Turned around, looked at the ducks. Thought, I would like a duck, yes I would. Walked on again. Stopped. It's probably a restaurant. They won't sell me a duck. Walked back, anyway, looked in again. Walked on. Braked for a third time, swore at myself, turned around and went in.


It's fabulous supermarket! 

I bought my duck (it was the one all the way over on the left). I ogled the pig.

I shopped. I bought the black beans I haven't seen anywhere else in ten years: Golden Lion Dried Black Beans. Fermented and salty.$1.75 for a small vat.

Organic sunflower seeds. Bought those for the cardinals. Maybe we'll eat some too.

There was a whole other floor, downstairs, but I was running late and still had to pick up roast pork buns at Mei Li Wah, on Bayard Street.

Then the duck, the warm pork buns and I rode the A train home.

At home, I spread the chopped up duck pieces on a baking sheet and slid them into a very hot oven for a few minutes. Juices ran, and I poured those off into a saucepan and reduced them a little, pouring them into a jug (my great grandmother Mary's). I made a superfluous dipping sauce. We ate the duck with lettuce leaves, and surprisingly appropriate M'Hamsa - Tunisian couscous, into which I stirred some spoonfuls of those powerful little black beans, and a handful of chopped scallions.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


117th Street and Metro North railway

Yesterday afternoon I walked south to 116th. Many blocks were cordoned off and the enormous emergency personnel presence was matched only by media. I am a reluctant bystander. I didn't have a job to do and that made me a vulture. So I turned around pretty fast. 

The air was bad with that burned electrical smell that means no good.

116th and Fifth

A little late for Angels.

Yesterday was spring-like. Overnight, it turned bitterly cold

Crêpes, and what goes in them

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

We are safe in Harlem

The cat is on patrol. He smells gas faster than he smells smoke.

But this does mean I'm getting our stove looked at.

I'm afraid the first I knew of the neighbourhood explosion was a phone call from South Africa, where the news still seemed to suggest that a bomb was involved.

The explosion happened on a block just north of 116th, on Park, which is actually right opposite the Urban Garden Center, which occupies space under the raised railways tracks, there, that take Metro North out of Grand Central. So that is worrying. I am waiting to hear back from Dimitri to hear that they are all well.*

There is a lot of helicopter activity in the sky.

Thank you for all the calls, emails and Facebook messages.

Update: * Dimitri and his staff are safe, but very concerned for their neighbours.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Burying elephants in cheese

What is one to do when a Frenchman hates to celebrate his birthday?


Buy cheese.

So I zipped down to Zabar's on Broadway and went to town in the cheese department. Maybe I paid the dried sausage department a visit, too. On the way back, goodies stashed in a khaki backback, I stepped onto the wrong train. Of course. And found myself way west and uptown on the darned 1, at 145th Street, with a lot of other angry commuters. Karma for me, as I'd just given a tourist bad directions. Unwittingly. So we all rode downtown together, in order to go uptown again. 

This evening I hoofed it eleven short blocks south and three long blocks west  to The Winery on 116th to get a quick and cold bottle of Champagne, as a birthday treat. Bollinger special cuvée. And it was delicious. Good things birthdays only come once a year. Mostly. And when I got home I was given flowers. Because it was his birthday.

The cheese tasting was fun, the pate and especially the sausage pronounced excellent.

Some small tarts from Le Patisserie des Ambassades on Frederick Douglass Boulevard finished the meal and almost finished us - lemon, coconut and frangipane. Very good, washed down with the last slurp of Champagne.

I think we'll be eating  cheese for a while...