Monday, May 3, 2021

May Day

On Saturday we walked in the Manhattan woods. It was May Day. A lovely group of people. A picnic in my backpack.

Joan is a founding member of my forage walks, and has been following my erratic botanical routes over hill and through dale since 2014. At last she was rewarded appropriately (at least in foraging terms): morels! And she ate them for supper in a cream sauce, atop a croissant. My kind of people. We kept spotting this elusive springtime mushroom, and our timing could not have been more lucky. Enough for everyone. In New York City. Whaddayagonnado?

The fleeting green intensity of mid-spring still surprises me. Just two months after snow cover and skeleton trees.

After our walk we picnicked. Deviled spring eggs; ramp leaf, sumac and lamb meatballs (unusually - most picnics tend towards vegan or vegetarian, depending on peoples' preferences) with garlic mustard and ramp leaf dipping sauce; lavash stuffed with ground elder and spicebush leaves; carrot and Japanese knotweed tartlets in mugwort pastry cases; and lemon-spicebush tarts with strawberries, for dessert.

Later, the Frenchman and I sipped drinks on the terrace. It is our best time of day.

Supper salad: highly unseasonal tomatoes (I cracked, it happens), with ditto cucumbers. But at least those were tossed with slivered ramp leaves and common milkweed vinegar! Kept company by scoops of dense and lemony labneh.

The terrace, these May evenings, is caught by light from the western sun.

And it is still light when we sit down to eat, sometime around or after 8pm. Above us, the newly-returned chimney swifts execute aerial maneuvers and are gathering in number. First one, then three, now six. Where do they nest? We don't know.

But we nest here. Even if we have not flown south in a long time.


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Catch it while you can


Spring. It's all happening so fast. Very soon, these Virginia bluebells will vanish from the late April woodlands and shady gardens (plant them where you have spring sunshine under tall deciduous trees that create summer shade). Kanzan cherries are about to shed their petals, crabapples have opened, dogwoods are starting. New York is in full bloom.

All that young garlic behind the bluebells on the counter has already been pickled, and the green apricots hiding to the right are now part syrup, part suppertime ingredient (last night they were cooked slowly with lamb, mugwort, pickled magnolia flowers and wedges of potato). The green apricot syrup is just sugar with an equal weight of apricots - their juices are drawn out slowly by the sugar and then ferment. A spoonful is wonderful stirred into a tall glass of cold sparkling water. Or added to the gin and tonic I sit and sip at six with the Frenchman. 

Or into this yuzu and lemon juice delight, beside my mayoral pick.

It's a year and two months and we have lived on top of one another for the length of a pandemic. And we're still okay. And still look forward to that evening ritual where we sit together and talk about what went on inside our heads all day, and watch birds, and plan outings. As of today we are both double-shot by Moderna. I was very sick after my second dose, he's fine. But being vaccinated against this beast that I never saw coming, and that I vastly underestimated a year ago, seems like a miracle. 

Inbetween, there have been walks, with and without forage picnics (Japanese knotweed and fava bean tartlets, above, on mugwort pastry).

And small but intensely precious escapes to a special spot in the Catskills. 

And there have been dandelions, I don't think I've ever seen as many dandelions. Leave them in your lawn - they are gorgeous. And course you can eat them, nose to tail. I've been including the petals in quiche fillings. Quiche is back. I've decided.


My NYBG Class, 27 May 2021

Monday, April 12, 2021


In the cold mountains north of us I picked some bare forsythia branches from a scrambled, tumbling hedge on the edge of the woods. The shrub is very invasive. 

But it is very pretty when it opens a few days later on our Brooklyn windowsill.


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Sunday, April 11, 2021

An early, edible spring

Early spring on the stone table. 

Field garlic, some dandelion rosettes, dandelion flowers (their petals destined for tartlets for a forage picnic); ground ivy (Glechoma hedera) in the tiny dish at the back - it is quite minty in flavor and is very beautiful in lawns; no idea why people spray it.  

And early violets, henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), and chickweed. I'm working more with chickweeds this season: Their fresh flavor is like cornsilk. 

The little blue vase of yellow flowers holds coltsfoot - Tussilago farfara, a sub-alpine perennial from Europe and Asia that is now quite at home on this continent, where it invades disturbed ground and roadsides.


Edible Spring Plants: NYBG class, 27 May

Monday, April 5, 2021

The harbingers of spring

On a grey Easter Sunday we drove north to the Catskills. Since our last visit, in early March, trees had toppled into the rushing river, changing its profile.

Within minutes the sun came out and the temperature on this warm side of the valley rose from four-layers-plus-woollen-hat-and-gloves to T-shirt. It was wonderful.


And then we found the ramps (Allium tricoccum). I have collected these native wild leeks here for years but this time we walked further than usual. The slopes were greening as far as we could see.

Backpack with ramps

I collected enough leaves to make a large bunch wide enough to fill my backpack. But often I just stood, and stared, smiling at this robust population of the delicious spring edible, so vulnerable to commercial exploitation.  In some places it is wildly abundant. In others it has been razed. 

They are not that hard to cultivate (spring sun, summer shade, humus-rich soil, plenty of moisture). 

The river far below ran fast, while up on the damp slope the ramps were growing almost audibly. In amongst them ephemeral wildflowers like wake-robin and toothwort were beginning to emerge. There were some early insects. And birds catching them. The fragile edge of spring.

Le Creuset with lamb

Back home, a pot of lamb shoulder had been cooking in a very low oven, all day. Lamb with a spoon, my mom used to call it (I called it spam with a loon). It was fall-apart tender when we walked back into the apartment, eight hours after leaving.

And I added some ramp leaves to melt for a final half hour's fragrance. Their wild onion scent made the Frenchman hum happily.

Sandwich in a pan

The next ramp meal was a grilled cheese sandwich, on sourdough I baked late last week. Grated cheddar, mustard, ramp leaves. Cooked in sizzling butter.

A feast. And necessary fuel for all the ramp preservation to follow.  Ramp leaf oil, ramp leaf salt.

Much more ramp stuff in that chapter of Forage, Harvest, Feast


Saturday, April 3, 2021

Street spring

In the neighborhood at the beginning of April an early cherry is in full bloom. Probably an 'Okame' or a variation on that hybridized theme. 

The fatter, frillier, better-known 'Kanzan' (often referred to as 'Kwanzan') is still a couple of weeks from busting loose. 


New class: May 27th, NYBG: Spring's Edible Plants

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Early Spring at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden


I visited the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for the first time in many, many months, cycling across Prospect Park to get there. You book online and show up at your appointed time and gate. 

If you are in New York, and can go, choose the Flatbush Avenue entrance. It is stunning, right now, designed for early spring, and it is at its peak.

The scene-stealers there are the luminous winter-hazels (Corylopsis).

And they have a warmer yellow backdrop of an unusual abundance of Edgeworthia. Its downy yellow flowers appear on bare branches that look almost succulent. They have a very strong fragrance, too.

The winter-hazels range from small shrubs to one of the largest I have ever seen (that giant is just west of the rose garden).

While I love - and advocate for - native plants, it's hard not to smile at a hill of daffodils.

And then there are the hellebores. They are glorious.

And good from every angle.

The relatively new layout at that Flatbush gate is luxuriant with them, planted under camellias that are in bloom, and about to bloom

The high berms allow you to see right into the flowers' hearts.

And what about the magnolias?

They are another story.


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Spring, in increments

Walking on a well traveled woodland path in Prospect Park I stopped abruptly. Diminutive bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), the most exquisite little spring ephemeral, has emerged. The afternoon was overcast and the flowers were closed and well-wrapped in their leaf cloaks. I wished them well, so close to dog paws and people feet.

They have many companions - the gazillion germinating seedlings of last year's biennial garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) flowers. 

The damp leaf litter of winter is also green with garlic mustard that will bloom this May. Looking at the plants, I planned a forage walk around the cunning invaders from Europe. They are edible, after all, and rather delicious. If you like garlic. And mustard. 

The spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is beginning to bloom.

And so are these. But what are they? Elm?

On sunny slopes henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) is beginning to get overexcited.

And in damper, shadier areas, purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) is flowering. I'm wondering how, or if, it hybridises, because these leaves look a little different.

The magnolias have just woken up. Their petals taste like minted ginger.

 And under-appreciated Pieris is weeping in white.

It has begun.



Friday, March 26, 2021

The door opens...

Things change. The sliding door to the terrace sometimes stays open for hours, during the day. Some evenings are warm enough for drinks outside. The new pillow covers from Skinny La Minx have been slipped over the down pillows (the most forgiving pillows, ever - occasionally they have been forgotten outside in the rain, and then they dry right out again). 

The pots under the table are from Gowanus Nursery - owner Michele overwintered alliums in them and came to my rescue when I realized I had left it way too late to order those bulbs - sold out, everywhere. I will plant them next week so their first, premature leaves are not burned by a possible freeze. I really wanted the big purple balls for bees - they adore them. And, as usual, I have ordered too many lily bulbs for the space (when in doubt, squeeze). Those are from The Lily Garden, also as usual.

It's a garish drink, the Aperol Spritz: prosecco, Aperol, sparkling water and (blood) orange slices. But March deserves it.

The windowboxes have been sown with arugula and cilantro, and the violas are to keep our spirits up, in the meantime.

Some time in late April all the citrus trees will migrate back out to the terrace, along with the bay tree and the myoga ginger (I divided the myoga in fall, left one out and brought one in - to see if the outdoor one might make it). In May the sleeping sand ginger will follow. And two tea plants (Camellia sinensis) will arrive, too. 

I know, not much space will be left for humans. But we are good at sidling...


The Books

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Drink the season

Cocktail with sugar rim

I was tinkering recently with drink ideas for a walk. The advantage of smaller groups (10 people rather than 15) during viral times is that I can tote drinks more easily. Liquids are heavy!

This was a test that never made it to a forage walk, as everyone was happy to be served a seasonal vermouth - but sometimes someone doesn't drink and then I either include a no-alcohol variation, or make them all non-alcoholic. This rather delicious forage-inspired mocktail called on one of my fruitier vinegars, from last spring: wisteria blossoms! Spiked with spicebush, and cut with plain, cold water. Perfumed, tart, sweet, and very refreshing.

The catkins surrounding it belong to Turkish hazel (Corylus colurna). This year has been my first of noticing the fascinating flowers of hazel, and I was playing with their pollen. The catkins are male, and the tiny female flowers are separate, and a deep burgundy.


Forage, Harvest, Feast

Monday, March 15, 2021

Not-quite-spring snacks

For a recent forage walk on a colder-than-forecast afternoon I made some canapés to accompany small glasses of chilled PandemicVermouth, infused and blended in April 2020. 

On the right are buttery salmon and field garlic (Allium vineale) tarts, with a savory custard filling. To serve them I added more slivers of salmon and extra, snipped field garlic. In the rear? Fir sugar shortbread cookies. Bottom left are toasted rounds of field garlic cheese bread. 

I topped those toasted rounds with garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) pesto and pickled chanterelles, from an epic mushroom hunt in the woods upstate two summers ago. The chanterelles - incredibly - still have that magical apricot aroma that traveled back with us that day.

And there were eggs, not quite deviled. Cooked in boiling water for eight minutes before being peeled and covered in miso, overnight (chilled). The miso flavors them but also draws out some moisture, so the texture becomes firmer. Onto their yolks I dripped some powerful, bright green ramp leaf oil, Aleppo pepper, and the peppery leaves of bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), a maligned but exquisitely pretty edible green in the Brassica family - like tiny watercress. 

Socially distanced walks and picnics are a challenge but everyone is well-trained, by now, and very considerate. (At least, the people who sign up, are!) There will be more, and it feels good to be creating wild food treats, again.


Monday, March 8, 2021

The journey to a sandwich

Snowbell flowers

In mid-May of 2019 I met a tree crowded with bees and panicles of fragrant flowers. Each bloom looked a lot like those of Styrax japonica (snowbell), but I had never seen them arranged like this, or smelled that intoxicating perfume. It was Styrax obassia, fragrant snowbell.  

Styrax flowers

I like to catch scents and flavors. And so after as much research as possible, I collected some of the flowers and decided to preserve them in the form of vinegar, fermented from scratch. Just flowers, water, sugar, and time. 

Styrax vinegar testing pH

After the first fizzing happened, and the flowers were strained out, I left the sweet, fragrant liquid in loosely covered jars to invite the lactobacter to do their work. They did, in a remarkably short time. The sweet ferment turned into a deeply fruity and complex vinegar in just four weeks. I bottled it.

Snowbell vinegar shrub

It is one of the best vinegars I have ever made, good enough to sip, which I did. Here it is in September 2020, with a dash of baby pine cone syrup, a lemon slice, and chilled sparkling water. Because of their depth of flavor (good) vinegars are ideal and healthy mixers if you don't want to drink alcohol.

Carrots in vinegar

Fast forward to last Saturday, as I prepared a forage picnic for 10 walkers. Carrots quick-pickled in the last of the fragrant snowbell vinegar. Destined for Wonder rolls - slices of crustless Wonder bread spread with chickweed and field garlic mayonnaise, and stuffed with the carrots, black radish and garlic chive flowers (I could write a treatise on my reason for making these with That Bread but we don't have time right now).

Forage picnic in containers

There they are, top left. Clockwise from there, watercress tartlets, black currant and juniper hand pies, and quails' eggs with a ramp leaf salt for dipping.

So if you'd like a sandwich in 2023, you'd better plan ahead. 

The next walk is What's that Bud? This Wednesday, with drinks and canapés, on a pretty-weather day in Prospect Park.

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