Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Conservatory Garden in September

Our brief residence in Harlem (late 2013 - 2015) and proximity to Central Park introduced me to the early autumn fireworks of the Conservatory Garden in the park's northeast corner (it is very different, but no less colorful, in spring). 

The Frenchman and I walked down there from 127th Street one September, to find tiny hummingbirds vibrating from plant to plant. Recently, we returned, all grown up, driving an actual car. (And paying $22 for three hours of metered street parking. Yikes). The Frenchman has treated himself to a new camera lens, and he needed lightning-fast hummers to test it (it passed the test).

I just wanted to see the flowers. 

If I ever had a prejudice against annuals - and I did, dismissing them as semi-industrialized bedding plants, planted in blocks or rows of thoughtless and often offensive color - this icon of New York horticulture cured me. Thanks to its curator, Diane Schaub, I get them, now.

But first, perennials: In the dappled shade of a magnolia, tall, red-flowered angelica was in bloom.

So were Japanese anemones, at their graceful peak.

And right above me, a tiny hummingbird, taking a brief break from her voracious quest for nectar, her resting heart rate a mere 400 beats per minute.

Ruellia: Slender stalks and willowy leaves with silky purple flowers offset against sturdy zinnias.

If you like salvia, this is the place to be. And September should be declared salvia  month.

Zinnias are deployed dramatically, here, providing structure and pink reassurance.

As well as sustenance for swallowtails.

These clumps of alliums were buzzing with honey bees. I know! More perennials! If you have full sun (meaning six hours or more of direct sunlight), and space, plant alliums. There's almost an allium for every month, starting in May.

Cannas, salvia, pennisetum, hot little pops of gomphrena...

And just for South Africans, bulbine. whose gel-filled leaves are a traditional southern African treatment for burns and skill ailments, but whose vivid orange flowers are now very popular, Stateside (and invasive, in some states; sorry, Florida!). Bees like them, too. I have a pot on our tiny terrace, for kitchen burns and terrace pollinators.

We will be back. October is just as rewarding. But we'll find different parking!


NYBG Class, 15 October

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Breezy Point - Backroads and Beyond

With the season turning towards fall the Frenchman and I migrate like birds back to Fort Tilden and Breezy Point, situated near the end of the long and skinny Rockaway barrier beach (the very end is a very gated, very white community - to reach the point itself we use our legs, walking along the beach). 

The reason we go back now is simple: we're allowed to park in the fisherperson's lot, again. After June 15th and before September 15th you need a permit (and to obtain it you have to show up at the permit office with a fishing rod). 

I walked alone on the deserted backroads, which were fragrant with autumn clematis in its glory. The roads are the abandoned infrastructure of a Cold War nuclear missile base - ponder that. The Frenchman left in the opposite direction, on his five-mile run along the low tide beach while his camera gear waited for him in the car.  

Autumn pokeweed berries have been eaten from their fuchsia panicles by gathering or transiting migratory birds (as much as gardeners may dislike poke, it is an important and native food for birds, and is also quite delicious for humans who eat the cooked spring time shoots - see Forage, Harvest, Feast for recipes and more detailed information).

In mid walk my phone rang, which it never does. Frenchman. Birds on beach! Big birds! Beautiful wings, red beaks! They sounded like skimmers. He was running back, fast, to the car for his new camera. I about-faced and headed towards him. We met on the beach and speedwalked back out to the point, into the bright western sun.

On our way we passed little furries of piping plovers sanderlings [see comments].

I love how they scurry back and forth, pursuing the edges of the advancing and retreating water.

And at last, after a mile-and-a-half or so, the big birds that had excited the Frenchman: beautiful black skimmers in flocks on the sand. I have only ever seen one bird at a time. They all pointed neatly into the wind. Summer residents up the Northeast coast, they are also on their way south, as the weather chills.

Cars are allowed on this beach, with permits. With dwindling safe habitats for shorebirds, and increasing pressure on their populations, I have never understood this. Shoreline ecology is also so fragile. Tire treads just kill it. If you want to fish, walk.

Conservation should be at the forefront of any administration's funding. Instead, it is a distant afterthought.

On our more sedate walk back we were treated to the diversity of human behaviours. Like this fisherman wearing his mask. We were unusually unmasked, since there were so few people on the beach. 

And then this, a hundred yards behind him. A massive, unmasked, packed-like-sardines gathering of humans at the Silver Gull Beach Club. Do they all have COVID-resistent genes? Are their parents or grandparents and children immune? What about their colleagues at work? What about the employees working there? 

Is this what is meant by a superspreader event

We didn't even like walking downwind of them.

(Honey, is that a tickle in my throat?)

And that's all, folks (or perhaps the beginning, for some). 


Thursday, September 17, 2020

Sesame leaf - stalked from behind

The secret undersides of sesame leaf. Backlit in the morning sunlight.

I use its toothed leaves as wraps for deviled eggs or spicy meatballs, or folded around quick-pickled vegetables. Or I sliver then soften them in good soy (try Ohsawa nama Shoyu) for 30 minutes and transform warm seven-minute eggs or steamed eggs with the aromatic dressing.

What's in a name? 

If it's a common name - that is, the lingua franca for a plant (or animal or fungus) in any given region, versus the Latin and Greek binomial, or scientific name - things can be confusing. Because sesame? This plant is not even vaguely related to sesame-the-crunchy-seed (that would be Sesamum indicum). Common names are notoriously confusing. Instead, the burgundy-shadowed leaf belongs to Perilla. Specifically Perilla frutescens var. frutescens

Nope, not shiso

Are your eyes glazing over, yet? Snap out of it! Because this herb is often sold incorrectly as shiso, and shiso it ain't. The plants above are sesame leaf, not shiso. Even the grower (at the Grand Army Plaza  greenmarket) got it wrong. Sesame leaf (above) sturdier and less aromatic than shiso, but its rose-petal flavor is very similar. 

This is shiso. Shiso is...tighten your seatbelts: Perilla frutescens var. crispa! I know! Just one door down from sesame leaf, in terms of classification. And she - shiso - has frilly leaf-edges. Forgive me for going Jar-Jar Binx on you, but if you think, "Shiso frilly," you'll know shiso when you see it. She may be red, or green. But she be frilly. 

And why does it matter? Because facts always do, despite Trumpiverse. 

Shiso is associated more with Japanese cuisine, is highly aromatic, but otherwise tastes similar to the rougher sesame leaf, which is traditionally beloved in Korean cuisine.

I grow both. 


Walk with me at the NYBG 

15 October

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Park

Until two weeks ago I had never seen a chipmunk off the ground. Now they are elevated. Here's one eating the seed heads of statuesque Silphium perfoliatum, reached from a handy pin oak perch in Prospect Park. 

Last week I saw a chipmunk chomping on spicebush fruit, hunting the ripe red drupes along the slender branches.  I suppose they have always done this. But suddenly I am noticing it.

I walked in the nearby park with the Frenchman, recently. He was hunting migrating hummingbirds with a new camera lens (we found them). But before we did - in a patch of jewelweed - we visited Lookout Hill, where in late summer a small, fenced-in meadow is filled with the season's rough flowers: Joe Pye-Weed, a giant persicaria, golden rod, and daisies. I see this hill several times a week, because I run up it to counteract sedentary evils. But no matter how familiar I think it has become it always shows me something new.

The tall flowers were bobbing and bending with seed-eating songbirds.

On our walk home the baseball fields were filled with masked children and parents, warming up for complicated pandemic schooling.

The park is all things to all people.  Now, more than ever. And that can get complicated. But most people are trying.

Our New York City city parks require New York City funding, and the local government has never been generous. And now the parks' budgets have been slashed. They rely on private funding.

The parks feed our souls. 

And what is that worth?


Sunday, September 6, 2020



Late summer on Staten Island. 

Mt Loretto Unique Area includes one of the rare grasslands within the city of New York. Despite being heavily invaded by mugwort, it is holding its own. In this picture, white-flowered Eupatorium perfoliatum (common boneset) was host to  monarch butterflies. Above us bald eagles soared on a thermal, and along the edges of the meadow sleek groundhogs chewed delicious greens.



Friday, September 4, 2020

Sipping vinegar - fragrant snowbell

Fragrant snowbell vinegar, a dash of maple syrup, and seltzer. With some candied baby pine cones and a slice of lemon. Sipped on the terrace just before the commemorative and heart stopping 9/11 lights beamed into the September sky.

This evening drink was a longer version of one I served earlier in the humid day for a forage-picnic-for-one, after a private plant walk in the nearby park (for a delightful refugee from Colorado's high country). I liked it so much at 1pm that I sipped it again at 7pm while I cooked a rack of lamb over the coals.

Vinegar is an interesting thing. I collected the perfumed fragrant snowbell (Styrax obassia) flowers early last summer, mixed them with sugar and water, and left them in a large jar to ferment, per my usual method for making cordials (see the elderflower and common milkweed chapters in Forage, Harvest, Feast). When the liquid was effervescent I strained it, returned it to the jar (loosely covered) and waited, fingers crossed. Good things happened. Meaning, local acetobacter moved in, ate the sugar, converted it to acetic acid, and...vinegar. All you have to do then is bottle it. Which I did. 

It is rich, honeyed, fruity, and tart. A real sipping vinegar. And an outstanding thirst quencher - so complex you don't mind that there is zero alcohol in it.

The candied pine cones are another story. But a good one.


Other Drinks

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Museum challenge - art recreation

Peaches Covered by a Handkerchief, by Raphaelle Peale

Peaches Covered by a Beaded Net, by me

Game organized by the Princeton University Art Museum. The deadline for art recreation submissions is Sunday, 30 August, 11.59pm EST. You may choose any painting, anywhere, as long as it is in a museum's collection. Categories include: Best from the Princeton University Art Museum’s Collection, Best Use of Food, Best Portrait, Best Landscape, Best Still Life, Best Abstract Composition, Best Use of a Pet (I assume dead rabbits in Dutch still lives are a bad idea - be nice to the pets!), Best Use of Household Item, Best Group Composition.


 Forage, Harvest, Feast - A Wild-Inspired Cuisine

Friday, August 28, 2020

Sand ginger flowers

Every morning for the last three days the orchid-like flowers of the sand ginger (Kaempferia galanga) have greeted me on the terrace. By early afternoon they have faded, their petals turning transparent and limp before they disintegrate. They must open in the night. I don't even see the buds forming.

This might be the year I divide their rhizomes. The wide, flat, aromatic leaves are crowding the pot. 

The season marches on. It's hard to grasp that in just six weeks the plant must come indoors, along with the Thai limes, yuzu, Meyer lemon, fingerlime (above), galangal, and myoga - but I do like the indoor jungle through winter.

But for now I know to head straight out with my cup of coffee to catch these fleeting blooms and to watch the bees visiting all the other flowers: the annual basils, summer savory, and portulaca, and the tough and floriferous calamintha (above) and hyssop (Agastache) collections, both hardy to survive whatever the winter brings. 

And we are still hoping for a hummingbird. 

Fingers crossed.



Monday, August 24, 2020

Sorry, August

It's never a good idea to say out loud that sweaty August is behaving like deliciously clear September. It'll turn on you. And it did. 

The humidity is back and so is the central air (one of the many thing we love about this apartment - I remember how we used to boil in Cobble Hill unless the giant wall unit roared at us all day). 

But suppers are still outdoors on the terrace. As they were then. What is it about eating outside that makes everything taste and look and feel better?

And peaches are still in season. So into the cold wine they go. 

Stay tuned for some forage walk news - I'll be teaching a fall class at the recently re-opened New York Botanical Garden. It will be 100% outdoors, to fit their pandemic protocol. 


Forage, Harvest Feast - on sale

Friday, August 21, 2020

August suppers

Terrace nights. Late August is pretending to be September, which is wonderful. The air is dry, the light is clear. September in New York is one of the best months. Apart from that September, of course. The spookily blue sky can be chilling, when that date comes around.

But back to the present. The cicadas have begun their static chorus. Sometime after eight the big trees in the background start to vibrate. A cricket in the garden below krieks, as we say in Afrikaans. The Frenchman and I refer to all black crickets as Chester (from a long-ago and very charming childhood story called The Cricket of Times Square - he befriends a mouse called Bernard, who likes liverwurst).

The giant 'German Striped' tomato on the platter above was simply cut in half, salted liberally, and strewn with finely chopped chives and basil. It's the time of year when the farmers' market tells you what to eat. (And see this Instagram post for how to transform simple white cheese into the yummiest version of itself.) 

We still use a beaded net to protect against tiny little fruit fly thingies (technical name) that besiege our salads or anything acidic. (For those of you who donated to and ordered nets for Angie-the-netmaker's fund - thank you again; she is beading as we speak. Of course I still don't know when I can travel  to Cape Town to fetch nets - so your patience is appreciated!).

The pillow covers are also South African, a treat this year for myself from A Love Supreme (I see that they have a sale now, and the USD to ZAR exchange rate is very much in the dollar's favor), ordered online and FedExed to our door. I love the stylized, hot pink sugarbirds, proteas and aloe flowers on these prints.

So, South Africa, France, a bit of Canada (the Frenchman has three passports) - watching the Brooklyn sky and wondering what is next. 


Forage, Harvest, Feast 

on Sale for $10

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Escape to the urban jungle

Late light on the terrace. Can you believe it is the end of August? Can you believe...anything?

But I do believe in books and in reading them. A moment alone in the small garden with drink, book, and bees for company, is happy. The book on the table above is Japan, and just arrived at the door - one of Nancy Singleton Hachisu's. I love her work.

The drink is gin, tonic (pink, from Fever Tree), and a flavor-infusing leaf from the sand ginger (Kaempferia galanga), one of the most rewarding, interesting and beautiful edible plants I have grown. 

It overwinters indoors, going dormant for several months. It looks deader than dead, then. You just have to believe. I take it back out around mid May. This year its first, tightly furled leaf emerged in early June, later than last year. Its orchid-like flowers are exquisite, and last a day, no more. The leaves are very aromatic and I have used them to make lacto-fermented Chinese pickles, and also include them in green curries. And, of course, drinks.

Oh! Some time ago Better Homes and Gardens asked me to write a story about my garden meanderings and this terrace, and so I did. You will find it in their September issue, themed The Power of Home. It's on shelves now. 


Books on Sale

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Lockdown lunch

Once a week I cook something that the Frenchman and I can share, sitting at the kitchen counter (which is where I write) in the middle of our work days.

And for as long as he has to work from home, we call it lockdown. How the seasons have changed. Pre-spring is late summer. And here we are.

I seem fated to discover the best mushrooms only when I have left the house in sweats and running shoes, bound for exercise only - a nearby hill in Prospect Park, where I run up, and down, up and down. Basketless, bagless, knifeless, as a forager I am unarmed. It's happened twice in the last eight days. (Last week it was chanterelles, incredibly. In Brooklyn!). 

Yesterday's discovery was a beautiful chicken of the woods, growing on a street oak, and still at the first, elusive and moist nubbin stage, before its chubby curves have fanned out into impressively huge but dry shelves. On my way back from the hill, I scooped it up and carried it home.

Today it became part of the topping for our weekly lunch: steamed eggs. Just eggs and cream (although sometimes milk, and sometimes hot water, depending on the texture I want), poured into bowls and steamed for 7 minutes. Very smooth, and purposefully bland. The seasoning today was all in the topping. Some of the mushroom, slowly caramelized in the juices of an overripe heirloom tomato, a dash of strong, dark tamari, and a final slivering of a soy-pickled shiso leaf from the terrace. 

Eaten in two minutes. 


Monday, August 10, 2020

Not drowning, but waving


Our evening supper table on the terrace, with zinnias from the farmer's market. 

My Saturday visits to the market are a highlight of my week. The produce is glorious and delicious, and it all grows within a few hours' reach of the city. Organized by the not-for-profit Grow NYC, entry to the market is controlled strictly to avoid crowding, and every farm stand has fresh chalk marks and boxes drawn on the ground where customers must stand to wait their turn. Marketers choose your produce while you point - and everyone is masked and gloved. It is hot work. The one farm that now allows you to choose your own produce wipes down every basket handle and requires you to hand sanitize from a giant dispenser before you pick one up. 

If the whole country was being run this way we'd be in good shape.

When I focus on these good things (fennel and balloon plant - native to southern Africa - above) it's easy to forget what we have missed, this year. A trip to the south of France (our tickets were refunded, at last). Chanterelle hunts (the state park that is home to "our" patch is closed). And late this month I would have traveled to Vermont to be the late summer Culinary Artist in Residence (isn't that a wonderful title?) at the Marble House Project. A kitchen to play in, and complete freedom to forage the land and choose from their kitchen garden anything I liked, to channel the seasons through food, to chart and document and compile. We would have ended with a wild-inspired forage-to-table community dinner. The residency will carry over to next year, but, as we are all learning, the more we know the less we know. Next year may as well be in another galaxy.

Finding - and recognizing - the good things under our noses remains inspiring, and I may be fortunate, that way. Lockdown inflicts boredom on some people but it's not something I have ever suffered from. Sometimes adventure lives in a windowbox. Or in a collection of summer vegetables from a farmer who grows them upstate. 

Or in a ripe peach.

Sometimes it's the new fruit on the fingerlime. Or a freshly-dug piece of galangal rhizome in a green curry.

So while I have space to grow plants, I still have the opportunity to experiment, to observe, to learn, to play, to create. Every meal is an evolving piece of the season, and a source of pleasure. Every changing month brings new things to fruit, to seed, to flower. It is all noted, edited, filed, and this tiny garden (and my local rambles) continue to fuel both work and imagination. 

In that sense, as my dad would say, we lead a privileged life. And I am thankful for it. 

(But I really would like to go and find some chanterelles!)