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.

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Find me on Instagram

@66squarefeet

Monday, May 31, 2021

Cottage in the mist

Within a week of leaving this cottage in Maine last September I had booked another week, for this spring. We had no idea what the travel situation would be, whether we'd be vaccinated, or what the world would look like. But we knew we wanted to come back.

We have walked in wet woods and found glorious wildflowers. I have never seen lady's slipper orchids in their natural habitat, before. 

And bluebead lilies covering the mossy forest floor.

I had been spotting carpets of bunchberries from the car as we drove north, and on our first hike they kept us company all the way. The tiniest of dogwoods.


The cottage has a natural hedge separating it from the dramatically rising and falling tide. In it grow bayberry, blueberry and native black cherry. The bayberry is at that deliciously tender stage where it quickly perfumes a drink. 

So that is what it did. 

 
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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Of hayfever and wild lilacs


The middle of May and the evenings stay lighter and lighter.  This is 7.38pm. The chicken on the grill has been seasoned with berbere, an East African spice mix that I first met when I waitressed at Cafe Adulis in New Haven, many years ago. The owners were Eritrean. My tips were stuffed into an envelope at home and once a month I walked several blocks and deposited them. And then I paid the rent. It was a hard time but I learned independence, met good people, and grew to love this potent blend of chiles, cinnamon and cardamom (and a few other things, too!).

Back to now. The Frenchman and I drove home from the Catskills with these bunches of feral lilac. They smelled wonderful and also gave us the worst hayfever attacks we have ever experienced. So they were banished to the stone table. But everything is in bloom - meaning trees and grasses - and producing pollen, and out on the terrace we can hear people sneezing, like a spring percussion.

The lilac flowers are being turned into a May wine to be served at a forage picnic this weekend (a bachelorette walk for a group of friends), and the rest will be the finishing, perfumed touch for a May vermouth. All the flavors of May, minus the sneezes.

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Classes:

NYBG, 27 May - Spring Edible Plant Walk

Alley Pond Park, 23 June - Midsummer Edible Plant Stroll


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.

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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.

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My NYBG Class, 27 May 2021

Monday, April 12, 2021

Context


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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Find me @66squarefeet on Instagram

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.

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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.

ramps

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

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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Book: