Friday, October 29, 2021

On the edges in October

On a gale-force day we visited Fort Tilden. The autumn olives are still heavy with fruit, their season now in its fifth week. For some reason some trees ripen much, much later than others. Their juicy, sweetly-tart and slightly tannic fruit is delicious. Birds agree, which is why these trees - very invasive, locally - spread so quickly.

The tide was high and foamy and dry sand from the dunes was blasting across the wet beach.

Many people discovered this refuge during the worst days of the pandemic, and summer saw the sand crowded. But today there was no one on the beach, and just one (extremely proficient) kite boarder in the strong waves.

Back in the shelter of the dunes where native bayberry, black cherry and juniper formed a shoreline windbreak, a man with a strong accent told us that the path ahead was blocked by high water. "Do not be deceived," he said, "You cannot pass." He was right. 

So we picnicked, instead. Tomato soup so hot it burned out tongues. But the heat melted the cheese into pleasing strings.


2 November:

Chrysanthemum Pop-Up Walk, Central Park

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The October filter

October is about the Boston ivy doing its final best. It is a misunderstood vine (at least in the US, where it is often neurotically ripped from walls, ironically doing actual harm, then). Its overlapping, leafy layers are good for buildings and people, insulating them in summer, and catching pollution on thousands of five-pointed leaves. And the purple fruits feed birds on their way south. This building (a short walk from home) is a happy exception and it looks wonderful.

October is also when blewits appear. Slicing their stalks lets you see if they are buggy or not (in warm weather, they can be). No holes? No bugs. They are delicious.

And this October has been the best hen month, ever. Hen of the woods, or maitake: bad for trees (usually they appear on oaks, which they eventually kill) but very good for humans.

And it is the month for late grasses allowed to grow tall in Green-Wood Cemetery.

...where we spent a recent evening after the gates had closed, listening to an outdoor performance of Fauré's Requiem. None of the backbone of Mozart or Verdi, but it has a dramatic moment. Crickets and migrating geese and city lights made it an unforgettably beautiful experience. 

It is also a good time to visit the city's edges, like Hunter Island in Pelham Bay Park, where we walked and picnicked last weekend, identifying plants and mushrooms along the way.

Our group found hen of the woods and lion's mane and beautiful seaweeds and a brave few swam in the high-tide Long Island Sound, smooth as a swimming pool.

October is when the prickly ash on the terrace redeems itself. It needs to be root-pruned - the green veins tell me the roots are in trouble and can't absorb enough nutrients. But when the leaves turn orange they are gorgeous.

Late in the month flower sellers acquiesce to the hues of Halloween.

And we are all watched. 

All the time.


Chrysanthemum Pop-Up Walk, Central Park

2 November 12pm

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Passionfruit, all shook up

There is the glorious scent of passionfruit in our living room. The big, purple-shelled fruits were grown in California by a small, family-owned business called Rincon Tropics

In South Africa I grew up calling passionfruit grenadillas. They are a common fruit, there, and not expensive; at least, not compared with the insane passionfruit prices, Stateside. Just yesterday I saw some - since this is their season - at a local supermarket, at $3.59. Each! (In a Cape Town supermarket you'd pay roughly $3 for about 30 fruit.)

In a happy Instagram accident a few weeks ago I discovered Rincon Tropics after learning that they grow grow the South American feijoa (or pineapple guavas - Acca sellowiana, botanically), a fruit I had not tasted since childhood, and then only once, but never forgotten. I decided that because this is my birthday month I am going to buy the things I desire. All month. With zero guilt. (I am not exactly a big-time shopper.) So fruit and books have been streaming in.

Thanks to my enthusiastic online ordering over the last two weeks (first a small box, then a large) I have been eating those fragrant fruits every night, after supper. And then the surprise, gift-box of big, fat, passionfruit arrived at the door. Happiness.

While passionfruit mousse demands to be made (despite the fact that we never eat, dinner for friends?), I have been scooping out the tartly sweet pulp by the spoonful, and also shaking up some good drinks.

Rincón is an interesting word. It is a corner, a nook, a recess, a secluded valley, or - idiomatically - the habit of declining invitations (sounds like me!). Maybe our little terrace is a rincón? It is also the name of several towns in several countries.


3 oz gin
1.5 oz passionfruit juice (from 1 large passionfruit)
0.5 oz feijoa syrup
0.5 oz fresh lime juice

To separate passionfruit seeds from pulp, give the pulp a quick pulse in a food processor, then pour through a strainer. The feijoa syrup is made by covering leftover but very aromatic feijoa skins with an equal weight of sugar in a jar (loose lid, not tight, because it ferments, a little). After about two days a syrup begins to form. When as much as possible has been extracted, bottle, and keep in the fridge.

Shake up all of the above with plenty of ice. Strain, pour, sip.


Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The turn

Autumn in the hood. 

The first street trees to take color are green ash, Fraxinus pensylvanica.  I knew that this was an ash tree but the NYC Tree Map helped me identify the species - it's a wonderful tool that maps every city tree.

Also turning yellow now are the honey locusts (Gleditsia species). Their tiny leaflets are a yellow confetti that the strange, ragged wind of the last two days has been blowing up and down the sidewalks. They gather in drifts. 

The oaks are still deep green, and the maples are not even thinking red thoughts. But it's on its way.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Tilting the other way

October is upon us. 

We sip drinks now under a long, soft twilight. The terrace lights are twinkling at 6pm, no longer switched on when we sit down to eat, at a too-bright summertime 8pm. Dinner is dark.

In response to early fall, and to a summer of heavy rain, hen of the woods (maitake - Grifola frondosa) mushrooms are popping up at the rough feet of every oak tree in town. And perhaps every oak tree in the Northeast. The apartment is filled with their chestnut honey scent as they roast for recipes to come. Vivid chicken of the woods (Laetiporous species) are still around, and the season feels bountiful.

The windowboxes on the terrace now hold cool-weather brassicas and lettuce - the latter decimated by the local mossies (Afrikaans for sparrows). Every morning I put out a dish of chopped blueberries for One-Foot. We have lost count, and track, of the bold mockingbirds of summer, but One-Foot (perhaps one of them?) is a regular visitor whose left foot is hurt or malformed. S/he hops on the other foot and gobbles up the fruit. Recently, a great horned owl called in the night. if we pay attention, we hear the migrating cheeps of songbirds.

Soon, it will be Halloween, and batwings for breakfast.


Find me on Instagram

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Black nightshade vs deadly nightshade

Black nightshade

[Published annually, since 2016, with occasional updates.]

Late, late summer, and the black nightshade is ripe, on cue. I tasted these and they had a good, sweetly earthy flavor. It can vary. Some are quite bland.

"But isn't it deadly?"

Noooooo. Deadly nightshade is another plant. And it looks different. 

The problem with common names versus botanical - that is, scientific - names is that occasionally you run into real confusion. So people hear "nightshade" and freak out. But the same people happily wolf potatoes and tomatoes and peppers and eggplant. All nightshades. Also, the Web is rife, riddled, with misinformation about the two plants. Read carefully.

Our black nightshade friend, pictured above and below, is Solanum nigrum - or, possibly one of several different species belonging to the Solanum nigrum complex. There is eastern black nightshade (S. emulans), and there is S. americanum; there are subspecies. But all ripe black nightshades are edible. 

Deadly nightshade is Atropa belladonna. It looks very different. 

A fear of and prejudice against black nightshade as a food persists where people are not familiar with how plants in general, or with how they are classified. Most people suffer from plant blindness. And that's to be expected. Fortunately, it's curable.

Both black and deadly nightshades belong to the tricky family Solanaceae. As mentioned, other edible members of the nightshade family include potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and chiles. (When they first encountered them, Europeans were afraid of tomatoes. Green potatoes are toxic. But we don't tremble when we walk down the fresh produce aisle. Death and deliciousness are in the details.) 

In South Africa I grew up snacking on black nightshade, and there, and in other parts of the world, the cooked greens are eaten, too. Black nightshade is edible, and not to be feared.

Read on to learn to identify edible black nightshade versus toxic deadly nightshade. Luckily, the differences are quite obvious, once you start paying attention. 

Edible black nightshade

Edible black nightshade fruit occurs in clusters (above). And you almost always see clusters of ripe as well as green fruit on the plant at the same time. The fruits have a matt appearance - no shine. And here is the real tell: the calyces of black nightshade (the green bits like lapels or a collar between stem and fruit) are smaller than the fruit

Black nightshade flowers

Black nightshade has tiny, star-like white flowers with prominent yellow anthers. Sometimes the petals are furled back. Not always.

Black nightshade

The ripe black fruits of black nightshade range in flavor from insipid to delicious (like a sweetish tomato with dark undertones). 

The green, unripe fruit of black nightshade are considered toxic, so avoid those (the same way you would avoid a green potato). As Ben-Erik van Wyk writes in his encyclopedic Food Plants of the World, "Care should be taken to only pick ripe berries, because the unripe (green) fruits may contain toxic levels of alkaloids (6 - 8 berries may kill a child)."

Note that uses he word "may" twice. 

He goes on to write that "the dark purple to black berries are delicious to eat raw and make excellent jams. The juicy pulp may be used for pie fillings, jellies, and drinks. Young leaves are commonly used as pot-herb in rural parts of Africa and Asia." 

Black nightshade jam at the Daggaboer Farmstall in South Africa

My aunt calls black nightshade fruit soepsoepertjies (an Afrikaans word) and used to make jam from them, before her fingers became too sore. She is 93. Nightshade jam is sold at regional farmstalls in South Africa. 

Black nightshade with its tomato cousins, peaches, and burrata

I like more savory applications. A fermented black nightshade ketchup lasts indefinitely in the fridge, and I deploy the raw fruits in luscious salads.

Tomato and mugwort confit with sheep cheese, lambs quarter and black nightshade

And as beautiful garnishes for seasonal tartlets I carry on forage picnics.
In the US, garden huckleberry is the user-friendly and exceedingly confusing common name given to a black nightshade variety (Solanum nigrum var. melanocerasum) that is cultivated as a garden crop. Huckleberries belong to the genus Vaccinium, like blueberries, and this name is all about marketing, rather than botanical accuracy. Its fruits are somewhat larger than the feral versions of black nightshade. You can buy it online at Baker Creek and elsewhere. I was introduced to it by the lovely folks at Tyrant Farms, who sent me a package years ago.

But even seed sources muddy the identification Internet waters by saying inane things like, "Caution should be advised not to confuse the fruits with those of nighshade [sic] (a very close relative), as nightshade fruits are highly poisonous."

Um... It is a nightshade. They're all nightshades. 

Deadly nightshade. Photo: Stefancek

Let's move on:

What about deadly nightshade identification? Atropa belladonna fruit is borne singly, never in clusters. Deadly nightshade fruit is glossy. 

The green calyces of deadly nightshade are very prominent, more Elizabethan ruffle than collar, extending beyond the fruit.  

Deadly nightshade flower by Bojana Matic

The flowers of deadly nightshade are tubular and bell-shaped, and range from purple to lilac, with green. They are distinctly ornamental, versus the hard-to-spot tiny white flowers of black nightshade.

Incidentally, deadly nightshade is not very widespread in the US - it occurs mostly on the West Coast, but that will inevitably change (since first publishing this post it has crept to the East Coast).