Wednesday, June 30, 2021

A new summer brings cherries

It wasn't always like this.

That Nanking cherry bowl has been empty, until this midsummer. Because I couldn't find them. Until last spring, I hadn't even identified them. 

Rewind: I posted about The Case of the Mysterious Blossoms early in the pandemic, last March. When their leaves appeared I was at last able to identify them: Prunus tomentosa, commonly known as Nanking cherry.

I walked passed dozens of them at Fort Tilden, one of my favorite city escapes. The backroads are always quiet. The waves on the long, long beach can be heard through the dense shoreline thickets. Sometimes a cyclist (or tricyclist) passes. And, until this year, parking was allowed nearby from September through May (now it appears to have been forbidden, completely).

Regardless of identification, I had never seen these shrubs with fruit on them. Even last June, just one or two sad-looking fruits.

But about ten days ago I received a message on Instagram from Jing Yang, who has attended many of my forage walks (she has earned frequent walker miles - yes, those are a thing). "Marie, please help me ID this plant?" And there was a photo of the Nanking cherries. Loaded with, groaning with, festooned with, vivid and glistening fruit. I squealed. And went out twice within days to collect them. Once in blazing sun on my own, and once in pouring rain, with Jing.

They are gorgeous and unbelievably abundant. Why now? Was it the slow spring, this year? Are they susceptible to frost damage, since they bloom so early, in March, well before our last frost date?

The flavor of the fruit seemed to vary from shrub to shrub. Some were mildly sweet, while others were sweet with a very good tart, backbone. I grazed as I gathered.

They are an anomaly. Feral here, yet apparently cultivated by many gardeners. I have seen them nowhere else. Could they have been spread by birds from the local community garden, where there is now no Nanking cherry in sight? 

At home, the foodmill began to crank (it's Oxo, low-tech, and very, very helpful).

When I work with unfamiliar foods that I may later write about or include in a book I have to measure. One cup of Nanking cherries weights how much? And yields how much pulp? So cooking means hopping from one side of the kitchen counter to the other as I weigh and notate. I froze a lot of raw pulp to deploy later, in new recipes.

They made a very glossy, gorgeous jam.

And a very frothy cocktail (I used the skimmings of the jam, mixed it with lemon juice and gin, and topped it with lots of tonic, and a sprig of hyssop).

I wonder what they will do, next year?


Forage, Harvest, Feast - A Wild-Inspired Cuisine

Friday, June 4, 2021

How to have a holiday

For me, much of the appeal of traveling - even a small distance - is to meet the plants that grow in the other place. (I can't imagine what it is like not to see plants, and perhaps people who don't, or can't, lead more focused lives?) And if some of those plants are edible, it is an intense pleasure to use them in the kitchen. It's an immersion in place and season. (Also, I just like to eat.)

So in coastal Maine bayberry (Morella pensylvanica) has featured frequently. Last night's dinner was a shepherd's pie, made partly to use up leftover meaty pieces that I'd braaied when a friend came over for supper (hi, Friend!), and partly to amuse the Frenchman, who adores the rustic dish. This time I added a lot of young bayberry leaves, still at that tender, chewable stage. And topped the ragĂș with stamped potatoes (because our cottage has no masher or potato ricer, so stamp, stamp, stamp).

Fir and spruce tips are still new and soft up here (as opposed to down there in New York) and so there is a batch of very fragrant fir salt drying on the wide table in the wide room with the endless, wide windows. Air-drying keeps the flavor better than oven-drying.

The benefits of car travel: you can carry heavy luggage home. So, vermouth. I always finish my vermouths with perfumed (edible) flowers, infused overnight in the wine I use for blending. That relatively brief soak captures their scent. And the countryside is covered with lilac bushes in bloom. Like clouds across the green fields.

For vermouth basics see the Mugwort Chapter of Forage, Harvest, Feast.

The longer infusions (in vodka) were forest-heavy: fir, spruce, hemlock (Tsuga, not Conium), as well as bayberry and a syrup of baby spruce cones (the pink glass). Into the wine they go, according to taste, and now it is bottled. Downeast Vermouth.

On a hike we found a massive lilac on an abandoned farmstead. The bush must have been 15 feet across and bowed down with flowers. So some came home, where I stripped the blossoms to infuse in honey I had bought at the side of the road from a stall that also sold eggs. No human in sight, just a jar for money. 

And yes, I bought eggs, too.


Find me on Instagram