Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mushroom dinner

When I was very little my father and I found mushrooms like these growing under the barbed wire fence on the koppie over the road from our house. The land on the other side of the fence belonged to the state president. But we figured the mushrooms belonged to us. My mother said they were horse mushrooms (Agaricus arvensis) and cooked them for my father's supper. But we didn't eat any. Just in case, she told me, years later.

Occasionally I see perfect large brown mushrooms in local supermarkets. These were at Best Yet, on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Delivery seems to be once a week and if you hit them on the right day they are perfect - six inches wide and plump with moisture. Six days later the same poor shrooms lie wizened and gasping and ignored.

We ate these filled with an old fashioned combination of garlic, breadcrumbs, fennel and parsley, with a squeeze of lemon juice. Forty minutes in a very hot oven.

Saturday, August 30, 2014


We are leaving the city. For a whole day. In a real car. With wheels.

We are leaving behind the lablab beans.

The scarlet runners (see the green pods?). 

The Malabar spinach.

The night-scented Nicotiana. 

Oh, and the cat (he had too many martinis last night).

Friday, August 29, 2014

Pan bagna

Summer evenings are shortening. We might sit down to supper in the light of dusk but by the time 8 o' clock is behind us the Harlem terrace is dark.

I made pan bagna  - it means bathed bread (olive oil is key) - on a recent, warm evening. It's pretty much a salad Niçoise, deconstructed, and we assembled it ourselves. I am lucky to live with someone who likes strong flavours as much as I do. The onion disappeared first, soon followed by the capers and chopped anchovies..

The Frenchman remembers them as beach sandwiches in Antibes, grabbed when you are a hot and sandy and very hungry small person. He was very polite about mine, but how could they compete?

I remember them as made by another Frenchman, Pierre Reveillez, who used to run a small lunch shack in a corner park on East Houston and 1st Avenue. There were also sandwiched baguettes filled with chicken liver pâté and cornichons, or with slices of saucisson. The latter were my favourite, and I ate those baguettes every week, when I worked around the corner. There was excellent coffee. And croissants, of course.

Pierre split his profits with his two workers, and was out of business as soon as the rent was raised. I still miss that place. He was from Provence, too, but Nice - and I sometimes wonder if he and Vincent might not have crossed paths while on small boy and teenage maneuvers beneath pine trees and in clear, salty water.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Summer market

From 125th Street, the 4 train took to me to Union Square in about twelve minutes. I needed, really needed, a tomato fix. Those things in the supermarkets are not tomatoes.

When I saw the beans I wanted a bean fix, too, but I stayed strong (why?).

The market was in tomato flood.

I did collect a box of those small dark plums, below. 

And these...

The city honey bees had found them.

And we ate these funny-beautiful tomatoes for supper, with basil and olive oil and garlic, and slices of toasted bread.

Because of the sunflowers, I just looked at the zinnias.

But I did bring home some duck breasts and very beautiful scallops and a tiny piece of tuna. I 'cooked' the sliced tuna and the whole scallops for an hour in lime juice with shredded shiso leaves, and we ate them with thin pieces of crisped French bread on a terrace where August had pulled itself together at last and delivered a blast of true summer heat, even at 8pm.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Pizza, with bird feeder

How is pizza defined? We are stretching the assumption here, with a base of thinnish, crispy-on-the-bottom sourdough, topped with slices of the house-cured (mugwort, spicebush) guanciale, and a generous handful of oil-slicked sage leaves from the terrace. That's it.

500'F for about 15 minutes. The guanciale crisps quite fast and small pork fat puddles develop around each piece. The sage frizzles, and then I whip the whole thing from the oven, onto a chopping block, and out to the terrace, where the last, late cardinal erupts from the bird feeder with a click of cardinal alarm.

So that, with a sipping side of cold watercress and buttermilk soup, was supper.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mt Morris

I make use of our local hill. Just south of us is Marcus Garvey Park, formerly called Mt Morris Park; the immediate neighborhood is still known as Mt Morris. The hill - a great chunk of rock - has lots of eroding stone steps which are good for a cardiovascular boost.  I run up, I walk down. I run up. And I stop for plants, like the goldenrod, above.

And the black nightshade berries. Do not tell me they are poisonous. They are perfectly edible and quite good, like slightly sweet tomatoes. Solanum nigrum. You'll notice how the fruit grows in a little cluster, like grapes or currants. The deadly nightshade you are right this minute freaking out about, has fruit borne singly, with a conspicuous five point calyx (the green leafy bits between stalk and fruit,  absent in black nightshade) - Atropa belladonna is the one you don't want to eat.

Nor do you want to eat pretty Solanum dulcamara - climbing nightshade, bittersweet - twining up late summer fences like pretty patio lights.

So, if you like plants, there is always something to see. Also some solitary men - it's one of those parks; and the cops, yet again, arresting someone very quietly, yet again. Low level drugs, maybe, or soliciting, who knows? And people splashing about down below in the great big turquoise swimming pool. And children with their nannies on the lawn, and the sleeping homeless, and the chess-playing old timers, and the two teenagers with whom I'm now on greeting terms, practising their gumboot dance moves on a deserted stone landing. It's a very well used park.

I turned west when I could run no more, and went to buy wine from the Eritreans on Lenox Avenue.

                                                       The August sky said September.

The roofs said we have cellphone signal.

Wee, wee, wee. All the way home.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Fall Walk Schedule

Hudson River Park

I have a new schedule of cooler fall walks: Inwood Hill Park, Staten Island, Hudson River park and Green-Wood. It's an amazingly green city, if you know where to look.

These urban-green walks are as much about discovering new qualities in overlooked plants, as they are about recognizing the botanical city that hides in plain site, and finding nature under our noses. While we walk we talk about indigenous and invasive plants, what to forage when, how to adapt familiar recipes to new ingredients, and about the non-edible flora whose presence in the city makes this a bearable place to be for those who love the outdoors.


Inwood Hill Park
7 September 2014, 12pm - 3pm

Still one of my favourite spots in the city, with its suprisingly deserted and quiet woodland valley, with contrasting hilly aspects that give way to the Hudson River and Spuyten Duyvil.

Indigenous spicebush abounds here and if we have our eyes open we may spot some delectable edible mushrooms. I am not a mycologist, and I focus on a substantial handful of edibles that I know well. But it's always fun to find new fungi, to photograph, spore print and identify. Spot catbrier to revisit in the springtime for its tender shoots, and see wild blueberries growing in Manhattan's northernmost park.

Inwood Hill Park

We meet at the entrance to Inwood Hill Park at Seaman Avenue and Isham. The nearest subway is the A at 207th Street, two blocks away. Additional details mailed upon sign up.


Brooklyn Bridge Park, Piers 1 - 6
20 September 2014, 2pm - 4pm

Over the last six years the former wharfs of the formerly shut-off  East River waterway have been transformed into an accessible edible indigenous plant playground. Bayberry, sassafras, elderberry, bee balm, sumac, beach plums, pickerel weed, cattails...the list is long.

We don't collect plants in such a high profile and carefully designed setting, but I find this lovely series of waterside parks is an ideal outdoor classroom. Walking ten steps reveals a new plant whose edible qualities are under-explored or simply unknown to most cooks and eaters. We learn to ID, scratch and sniff, and talk about eating possibilities.

We meet at 2pm at Pier 1, at the entrance to the (hidden) wine bar and cafe near the pond (straight in line with Doughty Street), off Furman Street - see map link: look for red markers.

The closest subways are the 2/3 at Clark Street, from where it is a 10 minute walk downhill to the park, or the F to York Street.

The walk will end at the foot of Atlantic Avenue. There is plenty of good shopping upstream, and at Sahadi's you can purchase foraging-related items for the kitchen, such as powdered sumac, and mahlab (wild cherry kernels)...




Green-Wood Cemetery
27 September 2014, 12pm - 2.30pm

As I wrote in 66 Square Feet - A Delicious Life, some of the city's most beautiful trees grow in Green-Wood.

Join me on a quiet exploration of one of the most peaceful and green parts of the city. After rain, the lawns are home to mushrooms and sometimes one can find maitake growing on the roots of the mostly stately trees.


We meet on the sidewalk at Green-Wood's main entrance on 5th Avenue and 25th Street. Closest subway is the R at 25th Street. More details will be emailed before we walk.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Friday, August 22, 2014

Supermarket flowers

I am not saying that every supermarket in South Africa is like this. But Pick 'n Pay at Constantia Village is. That's the shopping center a few minutes' drive from my parents' house, where all grocery purchases are made. The flowers at the entrance to this giant supermarket are mind blowing; more so - for me, the American - because the indigenous fynbos that covers the local mountains is so well represented. So I snapped some pictures, the last time I was there.

Protea grandiceps, I thinkThese flowers are farmed, not picked from the wild. I am told by someone who knows that every bunch unsold  in the store by a certain date is returned to the farmers, their loss. Punitive. At Woolworths, the rival, more upscale supermarket around the corner in the same center, bunches that are returned to the store for any reason by the customer, warrant a R500 ($50) fine for the grower. So no one's messing around.

For us, the innocent consumers (my tongue is so firmly in my cheek, NO consumer is innocent) there is a floral party platter.

Pagoda flower, Mimetes cucullatus. Cape sugarbirds love these, and we have seen them perched on the shrubs in the wild, long tails streaming  in the stiff wind that howls down the summer mountain.

Above, possibly Protea neriifolia.

Pincushions consorting with goldenrod (Solidago - American) and an Australian imposter - the white woolly one. Does anyone know its name?

Sweet little posies of blushing brides - Serruria florida. Probably the first member of the Proteaceae family I could recognize when I was little.

There are also tuberoses and Eremurus and fragrant stocks and snapdragons and arum lilies. There is the usual assortment, too. Day in, day out Chrysanthemums. Inca lilies. But for a New Yorker who pants for flowers in the wilderness of Harlem, where you'll find tired red roses sandwiched with baby's breath, or sickly sunflowers, or blue Chrysanthemums, this was like being dropped into a deep, clear, cool pool of them.

(Digression: Look at one of the prices hanging from the ceiling, by the way: R20 - $2 -  for 5 avocadoes. I get excited when I see 4 avocadoes advertized for $5! And on the subject of shopping differences, every cashier is seated on a swivel chair. It is highly unusual to find a cashier anywhere having to stand for their work day, as they do Stateside. I stopped shopping with relish at Sahadi's after realizing that one of the cashiers, heavily pregnant, was required  to stand for her entire shift!).

There is the flip side to flowers. The flower trade itself. The chemicals. The loads and loads of fertilizers and pesticides. The working conditions. Massive air and carbon miles, for many of them (not so much for what is pictured here, which is grown locally). The pretty flowers we buy often come at high environmental cost (seek out The 50 Mile Bouqueta wonderful book, which explains the alternative, beautifully).

Flowers are a complicated, complicated business. I do not know if the fynbos flower industry is any different and whether, in their natural habitat, fynbos can produce flowers with less synthetic intervention. I like to think so. Maybe I'll investigate further.

It's hard to balance my ooh-ing and ah-ing with enough information to know what and why to buy. But when I am in Cape Town, I buy beautiful fynbos.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The making of a garden

 October 2013

We moved from Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, last October. We left behind a much loved terrace. All 66 Square Feet of it. Our life there inspired my book. Many of our pots and plants from Brooklyn moved with us, some never made it

On the terrace off the bedroom of our new apartment in Harlem, pressure-treated planter boxes built by our landlord some years before were already in place. In them irises, asters, Pachysandra, tomatoes, eggplants, tangles of morning glory and many weeds crowded together. The dusty soil was so dry it would not absorb water. 

Over the first weeks I removed most of the plants and added 10 bags of organic potting soil, and handfuls of Espoma granular fertilizer. I transplanted the irises and asters.

January 2014

I ordered a bird feeder online (there is a vacuum in the design world for attractive as well as practical birdfeeders!) and soon flocks of juncos were hopping around in the snow.

January 2014

It was a bitterly cold and unusually snowy winter. 

January 2014

Many plants died. A leaking gutter made a wall of ice that entombed old boxwoods, roses, the fig.

 February 2014

But I worked in good weather, and planned on new plants. 

And then the soil in the pots began to thaw. I planted pansies, and sowed catgrass for the feline. 

 March 2014

But whenever I was out on the terrace I felt as though the eyes behind every window facing us were on me. I doubt they were, but I felt self conscious. I needed some kind of fence or screen, but did not want to build a stockade or feel like I was in a cage.

April 2014

Birch poles seemed a good idea - I love the natural colour and texture of white birch and they would also provide relief from the all-surrounding, slightly oppressive pale brown of the deck and planters. The poles came from Wilson Evergreens and arrived within days of ordering. 

I sank the the 6 foot uprights all the way down into the boxes, two feet deep, and watered them in well. The next day the Frenchman helped me tie the 4 foot crosspieces on with brown twine. The birds took to them immediately!

 April 2014

I thought about hanging filmy screens or curtains from the fence but decided that fast-growing climbers would be better looking. To save money I ordered annual seeds: scarlet and purple runner beans, and hyacinth beans (lablab) from Botanical Interests. Sothern African Gloriosa lilies - which had worked so well as sprawling climbers in Brooklyn - arrived from Brent and Becky's. The Brooklyn clematis was in a corner pot near the fence, and I hoped it would flourish here, too.

April 2014

I waited for warmer weather to plant out the beans, remembering how much they hate cold nights.

May 2014

Roses came from David Austin - while happy in the spring, they have not flourished in the four hours of direct sun they receive. They need more. By far the most successful shrub has been the blueberry, so I bought two more at Union Square.

May 2014

At last the weather warmed enough to let us eat - and cook - outdoors. 

 June 2014

By June the gloriosas and the beans had begun to do what I had imagined they might.

June 2014

And the birds continued to enjoy the fence.

June 2014

Wonderful friends brought fat boxwoods and perennials all the way from Saunders Brothers in Virginia. And I added a small annual cardinal vine to the climbing mix. Roses, Thai basil, nasturtiums, Calamintha, Echinacea, Talinum, chives and the original asters share these front planting boxes.

June 2014

In the shadiest planters on the left I planted mint, jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), bellwort (Uvullaria grandiflora) and native bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia). 

July 2014

And when I came home after a month away in late June and July, the beans were dripping with...beans. 

August 2014

This simple screen makes the world of difference when we sit outside.

August 2014

The Nicotiana sylvestris, grown from tiny seeds, have reached human heights, and are scented at night.

August 2014

The lablab beans (native to tropical Africa) are the last to bloom, and fruit.

August 2014

So there it is. A terrace after six months.

Its future is uncertain. Our landlord says he must lift the whole deck* to repair leaks in his roof, below. The whole garden will be lifted down to his backyard.

But let's not think about that, now. 

Let's enjoy it while it lasts.

[Fast forward: we survived!]