Thursday, February 28, 2019

African Violet Revival

Late last year I cycled to Lowe's to look for a bag of potting soil. One downside of our move last year was that it put unwelcome distance between us and the two person-owned nurseries I like (GRDN and Gowanus). And I was desperate. So Lowe's. But they only had horrible Miracle Gro, filled with synthetic fertilizers, I turned to leave. But not before I cast a fatal glance at the indoor plant section on the way out.

Many of the plants were wilted and their soil desiccated. But the rich colour of some African violets stopped me. I felt their soil. Dry like the Kgalagadi desert in July. Their price? $3.99 each. How do you even grow a plant for $3.99? The labor, the transport...? I scooped them up and rode them home nestled in my bicycle box, their bag tied shut against the cold November air.

These cheap little plants woke up a very old, buried plant love. I grew African violets on my bedroom's windowsill - propagated them from leaves - as a very small girl. The cuttings came from my grandmother Quez (to me she was Ouma) who grew them on the windowsills in her flat. Her plants may have come from her down-the corridor neighbour Tina, who was effusive in her affection toward me, and the real violet queen: she had dozens of plants, and they were always in full bloom. They were intoxicating.

I adored the flowers then, and looking at the plants that I began to collect again last year, I was reminded of how they fascinated me, all those years ago: it was like meeting long-forgotten landmarks within the botanical details of pollen, petal-iridescence, leaf texture. Mesmerising. I started looking for more but could find them nowhere but on Lowe's reject pile. So I rescued them.

I wanted some rich and some subtle colours, but I bought what was available. They are riotous and a little gaudy and I love them.

Where is the African violet comeback? They are perfect for small spaces and apartments. They actively dislike direct sunlight. Give them that despised northern window light. Water them in their saucer once a week, and feed them every time (I am using Espoma's African Violet Food, but need a few more weeks to see how well it works).

I took some cuttings. The undersides of their leaves are exquisitely anatomical.

These cuttings have since rooted very well.

This last picture was taken a few days before I rushed to South Africa, leaving autumn's bounty forgotten.

But the violets live on, happily, and I must find some more.


Monday, February 18, 2019

Jersey Shore

In search of snowy owls, we left Brooklyn over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and headed south to the notorious Jersey Shore, synonymous for me with the reality TV show, hence zero appeal; but the Frenchman had visited in January, and had just missed what the locals referred to as the bird. So in the brave spirit of adventure, I voted we return.

In just under a two-hour drive we reached the beautiful barrier island that contains Island Beach State Park, first passing through miles of strangely pristine and deserted beach houses - perhaps pristine because many of them will have been rebuilt after been wacked by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

In the park a sign said: Do Not Feed Fox. Fox! One fox? Many foxes? I had never seen a fox.

And then juniper berries greeted this happy forager (I bet foxes eat juniper berries). They belong to Juniperus virginiana, whose confusing common name is eastern red cedar (there is a whole chapter dedicated to unpacking that in Forage, Harvest, Feast - and lots of recipes: think Juniper Strawberry Ice Cream).

And in the dunes I saw smilax fruit in wild tangles. The spring shoots of smilax are delectable.

The beaches here seem limitless, marred only by the presence of occasional cars, which are obscene in this beauty. We walked to find the owl a photographer had told us about and spent a long time watching it. It sat. We watched. Sometimes it scratched its feathers.

I can't imagine what summer looks like, here - inundated - but on a cold and sunny winter day the desolation was perfect.

We stopped at various spots to access the endless beach on paths through the dunes.

And on one the Frenchman suddenly hissed, FOX! I froze.

Of course my own telephoto was uselessly in the car. Thank goodness he had his (see his post here). See the reddish dot on the sand towards the middle of the screen? Sleeping fox! We watched the fox for a very long time, trotting to and fro, settling to nap again. I fell in love.

Photo by Vincent Mounier

That fur. That nose. Those whiskers. The ears!

And of course we picnicked. Pickled cabbage and beets (pickles belong in winter, somehow), a treat-sandwich of sourdough and chevre and pea shoots.

That morning I had made a soup with a mushroom and bacon base, with tomato paste and smoked paprika, sloshes of red wine and good broth. It was still steaming hot from the Thermos and we sat on the sand sipping it, insulated in many layers, watching the crashing waves.

And then it was back to Brooklyn, our route this time taking us through the industryscape one expects of Jersey, belching smoke, filled with super highways seven lanes wide in one direction.

In the failing light, it had a futuristic appeal.

Over the Goethals Bridge into Staten Island.

And back home across the Verrazano. Heads still filled with owls and foxes, empty dunes and cold, clean beaches.


Sunday, February 17, 2019

Winter flowers

I took a long walk in Prospect Park; the Frenchman was feeling poorly and my legs needed stretching. They are long legs. They stretched. And I found snowdrops! Right on cue, actually (see this 2013 post).

And witch hazel - only the Asian witch hazels bloom in pre-spring. The American species belong to late autumn.

And I saw a juvenile red tail hawk. We looked at each other for a long time. I only had my phone with me, but a telephoto lens would have been better: as I watched him I noticed little woodpeckers and songbirds in the leafless trees. What will the end of winter bring? An early spring? More snow?

And I caught the unruly tangles of winter honeysuckle in bud. They are going to burst, soon. In time for next Sunday's first forage walk of the year? May. Be. Last year I made a beautiful vinegar with the scented flowers - but that was in April! I am plotting the walk's picnic menu. Hot soup, for sure. Red wine and mushroom? Or tomato and spicebush? And ramp leaves via a frozen batch of ramp leaf oil from a previous spring. Maybe in a dandelion pie? And a sweet thing. Because everyone loves a sweet thing. Spicebush olive oil loaves? Or a chocolate roulade stuffed with preserved sour cherries and cream? Or, or.... powdered puffball and chocolate brownies?!

First world dilemmas...

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The picnic memoirs

I was thinking about picnics. As one does. It was the day after I landed at JFK. Dark and very early in the morning, and about to become a gray wet winter day. My soul was stuck somewhere above the West Coast of Africa, trying to catch up with the plane that carried me for 16 hours from Johannesburg. It was missing morning coffee on the Cape Town terrace with sunbirds and flowers and corgis. 

Picnics cheer me up. Picnics even led, indirectly, to the Frenchman (who had written a post I chanced upon, about the challenges of photographing "a backlit saucisson on a picnic cloth somewhere near a lavender field in Provence." Tell me more, I thought!). 

So I began scrolling through some picnics I have known and written about on this blog. Some are mundane. A sandwich - but it is eaten on a rock beside a rushing mountain stream. And this makes everything taste better. Some are eaten in freezing winters. There is a lot of saucisson. There is a lot of bread (having cut down hard on wheat over the last year my picnic game has been challenged; meatballs, dips and raw vegetables have come to the rescue). There are many soups. And a lot of picnics in February! But the steady message is that picnics are good for us. Go and eat outside. Or just spread a cloth on the floor. 

Or join me on one sometime this year, in the wilds and tames of New York. 

January in the snowed-in Catskills. So cold we ate in the ZipCar. Fast tomato soup and sourdough and prosciutto sandwiches.

Another freakily warm January day Vincent and I picnicked beside the water of New York Harbor in Red Hook, a 25-minute walk from home (then on 1st Place, Carroll Gardens). The quick-pickled vegetables were supposed to make up for the floofy-soft potato bread (hiding crisp bacon and mayonnaise). 

On a much colder January day, we sipped very hot tomato-chile soup and chewed sandwiches on frigid Roosevelt Island.

In February in Prospect Park, we shared slices of cured duck breast. I noted, in that blogpost, the arrival of "an elderly Asian couple, well-insulated in big red puffer jackets, sit[ting] down to their own picnic complete with intriguing steam from flasks. After they had eaten she took a nap, head on arms on table, and he read the newspaper. It is never too cold to picnic."

February again, and in Red Hook, again - those bright blue days are irresistible.

Switch hemispheres: February breakfast picnic, Karoo-style, with rusks and coffee, beside the N1 between Beaufort West and Cape Town.

An early March picnic with the Frenchman on his birthday, out at Brooklyn's Jacob Riis Park.

And March in the still-bare Inwood Hill Park forest, I ate my chicken liver pâté with garlic mustard and field garlics and friends.

And perhaps we shared some drinks, too.

A completely different March: late summer in Cape Town, with my mom and dad and the Frenchman. The menu was: tramezzini with prosciutto, and cucumber and butter, chicken liver pâté with seed bread, garlicky shrimp in olive oil, herb and lemon roasted chicken, tomato wedges with green onions from the garden. And tiramisu.

Late April in the Catskills, with foraged ramps and farmstand sandwiches. Plus hard cider.

Lush late May at Dead Horse Bay, a spread for a happy band of paying walkers. Summer rolls stuffed with raw and pickled spring things (recipe in the fiddlehead chapter of Forage, Harvest, Feast), pokeweed tea rolls (pokeweed chapter...), sweet olive oil and spicebush loaves (a Sicilian-style recipe in the spicebush chapter), and common milkweed flower cordial to drink (yes, recipe in the common milkweed chapter).

And May in Pelham Bay, with a rare and shared beer. Don't mock our beer tastes. Miller reminds us of camping. We love camping.

The sandwich was a sour cherry sourdough I had made in the Harlem kitchen, and featured beach plum chutney with cheese and arugula.

Roll on, summer. June beside the East River in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The blog says: "I had made last-minute meatballs, spiked with finely chopped lemon grass, fish sauce and scallions. A mango and avocado salad with a little bottle of fresh lime juice, hot chiles, sugar and fish sauce, shaken and poured over on site."

And the July roof picnics, in our first Cobble Hill apartment and its 66 square feet of terrace plus all-important roof access (it is now utterly transformed by new construction). The tiny top floor apartment was incredibly hot, and we escaped to the roof's harbor breezes every evening.

This 4th of July menu reads:

Slaw of red cabbage, carrots and new peas.
Underdressed Waldorf salad of chicken, apple and celery hearts.
Frittata of eggs, potato, dill and parmesan
Pop Chips (moment of weakness)
Duck rillettes, quince pickles, pickled field garlic
Brown bread
Champagne (Duc de Romet)

July's smotheringly wet heat is the best excuse to make throwbacks like tuna mousse.

September, in Brooklyn Bridge Park, again.

And in another, southern September, I took my mom to picnic on Signal Hill, in Cape Town, post-fire and among resurgent spring flowers. Tomato soup in the mugs. Cucumber sandwiches.

One of the good things about our brief move to Harlem in 2014 was that apartment's proximity to the northern reaches of Central Park. This was a September picnic in pursuit of the hummingbirds that frequent the Conservatory Garden every autumn.

Same picnic. Raw vegetables are good travellers.

A September forage picnic at Dead Horse Bay, with quails eggs and bayberry dipping salt, mugwort crackers,  beach plum jam for wild herb cheese, juniper rillettes, and persimmon focaccia. Recipes are you-know-where.

An October picnic with my mom in the Catskills.

It was very cold, but I remember it mostly for my first taste of a local Honey Crisp apple.

And there are patterns: Back to the Catskills in another turning-leaf October, with ugly-delicious hen of the woods soup and bacon-and-garden-arugula-sandwiches.

And in December, a rolling picnic on the Adirondack train, heading for the Frenchman's family outside Montreal.

Once upon a time, I wrote:

"Sometimes, I think I picnic to stay sane.

"One might think that plates of pretty food are an indication of a sunny outlook. I say, look deeper.

"I say, the peeling and the chopping and the dressing and the arranging and the packing and the carrying and the sitting in a place where the air moves in a way that it never can indoors, are a last resort, the culinary equivalent of a rooftop-howling wolf inconsolable in its grief at the state of things. I picnic to let it all out. To say if we have nothing else, we have this."

Hungry yet?