Wednesday, July 7, 2021

July terrace

July, and the Silk Road lilies have opened. They are taller than I am. During these hot days they hold their breath, but towards late afternoon their scent is increasingly released. By evening, the whole terrace smells like cloves.

The right hand side of the terrace is also home to the Thai limes (Citrus hystrix). I recently re-potted them - again - due to suspected root rot. They were doing very well and putting out new growth, but a week of tropical and daily rain in early June, followed by a mad and humid day in the 90's, apparently resurrected a dormant pathogen. This time, in their very mixed potting media (with lots of big bark chips) I included a fungicide, a very expensive additive that is my last and extremely reluctant weapon in the root rot fight. Now we wait. 

Also, the black raspberry has been removed. It came from its nursery last year with a virus that I was too ignorant to identify at the time. Its pot was scrubbed and sterilized, and a new raspberry is in its place. And I bought a self pollinating hardy kiwi, too. 

The other side of the terrace is now home to the healthy yuzu (Citrus juno) - moved far (that's relative) from the sick limes, just in case, as well as Liatris, a collection of hyssops (Agastache), fennel and Calamintha, whose long-lasting flowers are all so attractive to pollinators. Except, I've barely seen any insects this summer. Still, the chimney swifts patrolling above us must be eating something. Inbetween are the happy, undemanding bay tree and prickly ash. And, of course, the stone table, where we so often eat supper, and watch the world above our heads (last night it was a low-flying osprey).


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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.


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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. 


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.



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.


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