Thursday, May 29, 2014

The wild pantry

Picking milkweed

Stolen from the Frenchman's blog, where he wrote a very good post about our woodland weekend.

The farmer was bemused when we asked to collect milkweed (Ascepias syriaca) in his cow pasture. It is considered a real weed in farming parts and is often destroyed. I hope I persuaded him to try some. I cooked several batches yesterday in three different ways and have confirmed it as my favourite wild vegetable (I think I say that about Japanese knotweed in early spring, too, don't I?). It is easy to prepare - drop into boiling water for no more than four minutes - and it has a very good flavour and texture.

Common milkweed with miso mayonnaise

And if you are about to get hysterical about monarch butterflies, here is list of just some of the species milkweed their larvae feed on. My botanist friend tells me this milkweed is abundant in the area.

My feeling is that if we can persuade farmers that milkweed has cash crop potential, there will be more of the plant for everyone. The milkweed colonies can be managed so that shoots can be harvested in mid spring, and buds in late spring. The sweet flowers and later pods are also very useful, and the plants that are allowed  remain for the following year's crop can feed the monarch babies.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The ideal lawn


One of the best things about our weekend in Pennsylvania, near a branch of the Delaware River, was our host's lawn. Allowed to run wild, it was studded with flowers; walking meant you crushed them. 

The center of the lawn area in the clearing cut from the surrounding forest was a meadow. Nothing was planted.

 Veronica and dandelions

I can't imagine a better lawn.



The edges closer to the woods were mossy. Everything was really soft.


My mother would have loved it. I haven't seen this many flowers in one place since we tramped together through the Swiss Alps, long, long ago.

(With thanks to Carl Suk and Linda Waa'tap Bishop in the Plant Identification group, for help ID'ing)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How to build dinner

In the woods, over the weekend, we found morels. I had never even seen a morel growing, before, so it was exciting. It seems I have a good eye for them, helped by the sniffer-dog Frenchman, who wistfully looks for chanterelles wherever he goes. The broad leaves above are ramps. I was in heaven.

Steve kindly let us bring some morels back when we drove home on Sunday. And we had three dozen eggs, too, leaving two dozen behind in Stockport fridge. Vince had only had a $20 bill, and the farmer's wife, who came to the back door wiping her hands on her apron,  had no change. The farm-fresh eggs from hens we could hear clucking were $3 a dozen. Apart from clucking hens we arrived just in time to see  two young brown piglets being rounded up for castration. Then we heard them. Poor things. 

It was a beautiful small farm, and Uncle Russ, the farmer, allowed me to pick handfuls of common milkweed shoots in its pasture. He was amused but interested when I said they were a good vegetable. In his proper vegetable garden he had rows of gorgeous purple asparagus tips just showing.

My job today will be cleaning and preparing the milkweed, blanching some for freezing, pickling some, and figuring out a little wild foods menu for two vegetarians, tomorrow. I certainly have good ingredients.

Eggs, morels, some ramp greens?

An eight-egg omelette, of course. The Frenchman hummed as he ate.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Up north

We have been on woodland dialysis:

Two refreshing nights and fewer days up north, in Pennsylvania, near a big river, in some wild woods, where spring is a few weeks behind New York City's botanical clock.

Ramps featured regularly on our daily menus. Our host, Steven Schwartz, is the proprietor of Delaware Valley Ramps, which supplies markets and restaurants with wild delicacies that are foraged on his property. (And recently he received an upmarket order for garlic mustard. The gospel according to edible weeds as new vegetables is spreading.)

For a post-foraging brunch (we found wood nettles and morels) we scarffed down bagels with ramp green cream cheese, locally smoked salmon, and pickled ramp bulbs. Soon, the Frenchman will post - I hope - his picture of that evening's Rampitini. Ramps popped up in tarts, on kebabs, and under (roast) chickens.

I learned lots in a little time, walked on a wildflower-strewn lawn, drank a lovage cocktail (thank you, Laura Silverman), cooked with wood nettles and found those morels.

Our blood runs a little greener than before we left the city

Friday, May 23, 2014

In transit

Uptown-bound on the 5.

In Harlem, a man in a three piece suit stood grandly aside as I staggered down the sidewalk, and when I switched hands two blocks further, on the corner of Fifth and 127th, a tiny Hispanic woman in sky-high heels stopped and said, You need help with that?

I did, actually, but it would have crushed her.

And I like living in a place where people ask.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The visitor

There is never anyone next door. The back yard is overgrown and deserted. The windows of the building never open and their curtains remain drawn, even on a beautiful day like today (not a bad thing, really, for us having dinner on the terrace). I'm not complaining. But I am curious.

But there is sometimes a visitor. It scales the chainlink fence at the back of all these unused lots and hops down into this one.

And when I said, Pss, pss pss, the other day, the visitor approached and looked up at me.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Change on a city terrace


And January this year. Hm. I must really have been leaning over the edge for that snow picture.

Monday, May 19, 2014


I inherited some irises with the Harlem terrace, and they are beginning to bloom. Their scent is one of my favourites.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Green Inwood

After a rocky start involving a major subway snafu on my part, and a last-minute green cab dash to Inwood when subterranean travels seemed useless ('Do you know Inwood Hill Park,' I asked the cabbie, breathlessly. 'Sure,' he said, 'My team plays softball there ebery Toosday), we were off, into the woods.

It is the greenest time of the year.

An oak apple gall. I had to look it up.I knew it was a gall, but had never seen this one, or understood them. One of the walkers, a feisty neighborhood lady named Davia, with a sharp eye, found this one and opened it to look inside. A wasp emerges from the gall, which is a mutated leaf; the female wasp lays her egg in an oak leaf. The gall is the consequence. 

It was good to talk about sassafras to a couple of New Orleanians who knew all about file (dried sassafras  leaves, used to thicken gumbo), and who also knew someone who eats possum - I explained that spicebush berries are added traditionally to season a good possum dish...

No, I do not forage Harlem possums. But if I did, at least I'd know how to spice(bush) it up! Harharhar.

After a wide tour of the park, ending with the collecting of burdock stems and dock seeds, we rested at some benches near the incoming tide, and ate the field garlic bread I had brought.

And then I managed to get home without much incident.

Next wild edibles walk? North Woods, Central Park, on Memorial Day. After that I'll post the summer schedule.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Friday, May 16, 2014

Wisteria vinegar

Playing with flowers. They smelled very strong and lovely, but I did not have many, and it was either sugar or vinegar, for catching that scent. I used a good white wine vinegar for the infusion; if you used terrible vinegar nothing good will come of it.

I'll be experimenting more with vinegars in the coming months:

I am looking forward to a package from California. A 'mother' is being mailed to me, once their terrible fire-hot temperatures cool off, or the mother might die en route. The sender is Pascal, of Pascal-and-Mia, the talented forager-wild food-innovator couple whose work near LA sets the bar very high.

(Here is their class schedule if you are in the LA area. I can't recommend them highly enough.)

When the Frenchman heard that fruit flies created the vinegar mother in question his eyebrows went very oh-la-la... He might meet it at the door with baseball bat or a can of DEET.

If I find more wisteria flowers in heavy scent I'll cover them in sugar, to infuse. But this was yesterday's game. I'll strain it in a few days. It might be best drunk in a newly popular shrub, a drink whose time has come (again).

The flowers themselves are edible and crunchy, and have a distinct flavour. The seeds, of course, are poisonous.

Wisteria was one of the few plants I was warned about as a child. I loved to play with the velvety pods that appeared on the giant wisteria hanging over the big wooden doors in the high white wall that separated the garden in which I grew up, from the street. In spring the bunches dripped like pale fragrant grapes.

Good bye to all that. But then it comes back, in an unexpected drift of air, in a green forest, in a land very far away.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Inwood wild edibles walk

Wild blueberries

Inwood Mid-Spring Walk
Saturday 17 May, 12.30pm - 3.00pm

The woods of Inwood, at Manhattan's northern tip, have changed a lot since early April. They are fully leafed out, fresh green, and bursting with edible plants.

Expect to see edible and invasive pokeweed shoots, mugwort, Japanese knotweed and field garlic.


There will also be succulant greenbriar, wild grapes and the elusive and brutal nettle, as well  as many other wild edibles and indigenous wildflowers.


Wild grapes

Our walk will take us up the hill, along the top, and down over the Hudson River. Learn to ID poison ivy and where to find its country-remedy antidote, jewelweed.


Bring water and a snack, although one will be provided (either the field garlic cheese bread below, biscuits or perhaps a sweet, Japanese knotweed loaf).

Field garlic cheese bread

We meet at 12.30pm sharp at the entrance at Seaman Avenue and Isham, returning there by 3pm. The closest subway is the A to 207th. More details for confirmed walkers closer to the time.


Solomon's seal

Life imitating art

The Harlem terrace. A mojito. The latest New Yorker. A blueberry bush in the background.

But no. I won't be having kittens, any time soon. 

Can the people in the picture also smell the weed, wafting up from the neighbours?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Supper on the Harlem terrace

Warm night supper. The jets overhead to La Guardia, the hacking cough from the fourth floor of the men's shelter, the lit windows, the calling of a woman's voice next door: Pebbles, Pebbles! Pebbles? Pebbles, get back here... Pebbles?



Door slams.

Monday, May 12, 2014

A botanical walk at Dead Horse Bay

First, to assemble: 

From Harlem I caught the 2 to Times Square. Ordinarily the 2 would take you all the way to the end of the line, at Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. But the MTA wasn't going to make our foraging commute easy, no way: the Brooklyn 2 was down for the count. At Times Square I switched to the Q. That took me to Avenue J, in a part of Brooklyn I barely know (above). Real houses in real gardens. With real dandelions. I walked from there for a pleasant near-mile to that 2 stop to meet up with the people who'd signed up for the Dead Horse Bay outing. 

Within ten minutes we'd assembled, variously transported by foot, bus and cab, at this deeply ungreen corner of Nostrand and Flatbush. It was sticky, the first hot day of the year. From there we hopped the Q35 bus. Oh, yippee: no airconditioning. But everyone perked up once we'd left the urban choke behind and started to pass houses on stilts and  lobster shacks and open green spaces.  Floyd Bennett Field on the left drew admiration.

The bus dropped us off, we gathered two more walkers who had driven out to park nearby, and headed into Brooklyn's wild west.

The paths were springlike and we found many dandelions and lots of dead nettle (below) in bloom. We paused often to look at field garlic and mugwort, poison ivy and sumac, wild lettuce, mustard garlic, pokeweed and bayberry. Two ticks joined the party and were sent to meet their maker. I passed Tabard around.

Oodles of garlic mustard at the perfect stage for picking.

Violets - I've never seen them at Dead Horse Bay.

The reeds (invasive Phragmites australis) dominate the edges of the shoreline here. Nothing can grow inbetween them except tenacious poison ivy. Small songbirds darted about, flashes of yellow.

On the edge of this old landfill, above the high water mark, I found many little indigenous sea rocket (Cakile edentula) seedlings. They would be a good kitchen crop for gardeners with full sun.

Hey. I said it was the wild west. 

After a break for sandwiches and the good old field garlic cheese bread (I'd better come up with better walk snack - some people had eaten it before, on a previous outing), we rounded the bend and headed down the really cluttered part of the beach. Very Mad Max.

Coney Island is the point on the left. Storms stopped over the city. Later we passed storm drains littered with trash that had poured into them.

Bottles and shoes and clocks and crockery keep eroding from the edges of the fill.

We passed photographers and film makers and fallen down trees.

The storm in the north darkened. 

We arrived back at the bus shelter - real shelter - at the edges of a downdraft's flurry, but the action moved on, and left us dry. The graffiti was prophetic. The return commute was creative even by the MTA's Machiavellian weekend standards, and I arrived home in the early evening with saucer eyes. But carrying rum.

Nothing a sizeable mojito could not cure. A good day, with good people.