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Posts Tagged ‘beach plums’

I had every hope of finding Concord grapes today in a local park. But the guy who told me about them impressed upon me the fact that they tend to wrap their viney selves around trees, way out of reach. So I might find them, sure, but would they taunt me from their lofty perch, giggling at my dinkiness? Probably. I suited up (boots past their prime, socks over the cuffs of my jeans, old t shirt, and backpack) and went anyway. I looked like a bohemian infantryman, which worked since the grapes were supposed to be somewhere at Monmouth Battlefield, the site of one of the most intense fights of the Revolutionary War.

It had been years since I’d been on these hallowed grounds—acres and acres of rolling hills, old fences, tree-lined pastures, nodding false Queen Anne’s lace blossoms, and no sound but the whirring of crickets. No sound except for today, when I was hiking behind two elderly couples who stopped every few feet to discuss in detail why the battle was an important one, even though all were Americans and might have heard of the kerfuffle we’d once had with the British. The gentleman who took the lead in enlightening the hikers, the pastures, and the crickets on the battle had the kind of manner that always seems as if he’s pontificating, even if he’s talking about tomorrow afternoon’s forecast. I’d planned on taking a right after the bridge, but took a left to get the noise out of my ears. At a place like this, all of that yammering felt blasphemous.

At first I found a lot of what looked like grape vines—they were all over—but found no grapes on them, so I figured I’d just enjoy the walk and the soul of the place. But I kept looking. And when I spotted my first few, a few feet over my head under an awning of leaves, I just stared, dumbstruck. These are the variety that’s made into grape jelly. Treasure is in the eye of the beholder.

There were in fact a few clusters out of reach along that pathway, maybe a half mile long. I think the deer probably got to the lower ones first. But a lot were accessible, even for Miss Five-Foot-Three, and I got about a quart’s worth.

Most important thing I learned while picking Concords: Wild rose canes are vicious. I’ve added their tiny vampire-like cuts to the ones I got last week while picking beach plums (more on that later). War wounds on war-grounds. Worth it. And I’m so grateful to those couples for their insufferable prattle or I never would have turned left.

I think I’ll make peanut butter muffins and top them with these.

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For a dozen years I had as a neighbor an Army veteran, borough fire chief (in the 1950s), a gardener who outlived two wives, and one of the last true outdoorsmen from the Greatest Generation. He loved canoeing as a kid in the 1930s and said he knew every stream and byway of Deal Lake. He taught kids how to fish on Sandy Hook when he was in his eighties. He showed me the secret patch of beach plums that he’d been visiting every year since childhood, at first with his mother, and then on his own, to get fruit for his favorite jam. He hunted wild turkey every Thanksgiving week, teaching me all about those very smart and very fast birds, and swearing they made the best soup in the world. He’d wave at me from his tiny front porch, pushing 90 years old, and call out, ‘Still here.’

When he went into the hospital for a couple of weeks, he told me to help myself to anything I wanted in the little 10×10′ garden he planted between his house and detached garage, and I loved pulling sweet baby carrots for dinner. When I’d bring him a piece of coffee cake I made with my wild mulberries, he was one of the very, very few people who wouldn’t look at me like I was a mental case. He’d devour it, then grin and tell me to keep practicing.

In front of his little house grows a lavender rhododendron bush. One day, when his second wife was still living, he showed me a straggly rose bush planted in front of it and told me he really wanted to pull it out, but didn’t because she liked it.

We lost him a few years ago. I rode my bike past the house today. The rhododendron is still there, healthy and enormous, and taking over the yard. But it took me sticking my bike-helmeted head under the branches, and looking around in the dim light for a quite a few minutes, to spot what I was looking for.

He was a widower for a good five years after she passed, and never lost his sharp mind. He didn’t forget to pull it out. He left it because of her, and I’m probably the only one who knows. But I guess all of you know now, too.

Saluting Mr. Cook this Memorial Day. Your rosebush is still here. So are you.

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Fruit collected in my secondhand bread-rising bowl.

Today I foraged in a graveyard under a canopy of old, old trees in full autumn fire.

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Marker nearby. Lambs and little angels usually guard children’s graves.

I picked wild persimmons from two little trees that my friend Lauren spotted last year when picnicking with her children.

Harvesting anything has always been a Zen thing for me, and it’s something I like to do alone. I love people—I’m no loner—but I always decline company when I’m picking. It’s a communion with the earth, and I can’t look and listen as well when I’m distracted by chatter.*

In this particular location, I’m utterly surrounded by company, but they’re the quiet sort.

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Persimmon tree in the foreground and graves in the back. American flags are abundant when persimmons are ripe; Veteran’s Day was last week.

I often think of ecology and climate change on excursions like this, on days when I get dirt, bits of twigs, and leaves in my boots. I think of how detached most of us are from the earth. (How can we see the connection between ourselves and the earth when we buy most of our food in fluorescent-lit stores hundreds or thousands of miles from the dirt where it grew? Why would we fight for that dirt when we never see it? We might as well fight for the planet Neptune.)

Years ago I read a quote from a new florist who said the flowers were teaching her what to do. When it’s just me and the trees, it’s very much the same. You get to know a plant when you visit it spring after summer after fall.

When it comes to wild persimmons, I’ve learned they’re smaller than the variety you see this time of year in stores, just about the size of a cherry tomato. They’re not ready to pick until they’re soft and black-burnished and somewhat shriveled. Once the leaves are gone and there’s nothing left on the tree but fruit, they’re usually ripe. But—if I tug on a fruit that’s not quite ripe, if it’s still too smooth and firm, it will resist. Not yet, it tells me. No. Wait.

Any stage actor worth the pantaloons he’s in will tell you there is no power in his performance until there’s an audience, that every breath, gesture, word he puts out there needs a human to tell it to. Acting is not just talking; not even a monologue is just talking. It is always a dialogue between the actor and the audience. It’s another communion. Each needs the other. Each feeds the other.**

This is how it is when I harvest: it’s a dialogue between the plant and me, far more immediate and powerful than if I were to choose that same plant from a store. It teaches me without a word, feeds me, and reinforces the connection between this human and the earth.

Harvesting in a graveyard might be the truest communion with the earth there is; it’s the full life cycle in 360-vision. We pick the food from the earth, one day we will be put in the earth, more food grows and is picked, and the cycle continues.

This is my second and last year harvesting at this beautiful spot, though; the church chaplain gave me permission to pick, but gives me the stink-eye when I do. I will miss these trees, but picking that way mars the experience. She doesn’t know that I thank the trees (I’m a goof, but I really do), nor that I always say hello to the folks that surround them (which I’d do anyway, even if I hadn’t just reread Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which I had). She doesn’t know that this is sacred to me. I conveyed my enthusiasm, but it didn’t help.

I’ll keep looking until I find more persimmon trees. And in the meantime, I’m making a pie.

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*I’ll give you one exception: my elderly neighbor brought me along on maybe his 70th year foraging for beach plums, and my first year. He was the pensive type, a hunter, and he went off to one thicket and I went off to another. He got it. The communion thing.

Oh…and this is probably why I never went in for religion. Nothing against it for others, but for me, communion with a great Something is too important to be cluttered up with rules, doctrine, pageantry, and a heap of other people reciting in unison. I need quiet.

**When you see a performance that moves you, please applaud, gasp, laugh, sigh, whatever. For 20 years I’ve stood backstage with anxious actors, and you have no idea how much that feeds them. They thrive on your reactions—honest.

 

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Wild persimmons, Navesink, NJ.

Last week I tossed my stepladder in the car and headed out to pick more persimmons in the woods, and right about now you’re all wondering if I ever actually pay for anything I pick, aren’t you? Between the mulberries and wineberries and peppermint and beach plums and quinces and—wow, it really has been a banner year for wild pickings.* The answer is yes; I pay when I pick at my favorite farm, and will from time to time pick n’ pay at an orchard. But the thrill of the hunt that many get from Black Friday I get from what I spot driving down the road or taking a walk. Two plusses on my end: 1) No wallet necessary, and 2) no one’s squalling in line with me. Three, actually: 3) I never have to wrap what I find and stick on a bow, either.

The fruit above was spotted by my friend Lauren, who was picnicking with her kids in a beautiful wood that is also shared by a cemetery. She sent me a photo and asked what it was. I knew they were persimmons, but these didn’t match the shape of either Hachiya or Fuyu, common Japanese varieties. They were as small as cherry tomatoes. A Google search proved it: they’re wild ‘uns. SCORE.

I climbed the hill looking for them and saw there were two trees, right next to each other. I pulled a fruit down and popped it in my mouth. The flesh was slippery and musky sweet. It was a frigid day, but I picked about 20—as many as dinky me on that dinky stepladder** could without also freezing my fingers off.

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Baked Laurie Colwin’s cake as a worthy persimmon vehicle and mushed them up as a topping. Didn’t need to add a speck of sugar to them.

We move on to Thanksgiving Day, when most people are cooking, eating, convalescing comfortably as they watch football, or squalling comfortably in line per above. Most are not teetering on a stepladder in the countryside, cursing first one’s own lack of height and then the stepladder’s. I wanted to pick from the only Fuyu I knew of in all of New Jersey, the place was deserted just as I’d hoped, and I was too low to the ground to pick even one. Cheers!

No, wait! Just as I did my first futile reach, out of freaking nowhere, a guy ambled up the hill right toward me. I called out, ‘I’m five foot three.’ He answered, ‘I’m five foot ten.’ As good a greeting as any, especially when he insisted on getting a couple of fruits down for me afterward. The holiday of thanks was redeemed, and was made even more touching when he didn’t ask if I’d had any kind of tree-raiding permission. Keep your roaring fires and pashmina throws from Nordstrom—that was bloody cozy right there.

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Fuyus, almost a lost cause, deep in the heart of Navesink.

I forgot to tell you the wild persimmons at top were quite pit-ty, but unless I did something wrong, the Fuyus were totally pit-free. They are much bigger, too, and look like a red-orange tomato. I learned that you just pull off the top, dig in with a spoon, scoop all of the goo out, and eat straight up.***

I winged it this morning—made a parfait for breakfast. You can do it too if you raid a local tree, or more respectably a local supermarket:

-Take leftover homemade ricotta mixed with a little granulated sugar

-Add two layers of the inside of a persimmon

-Sprinkle a little ground cardamom on the whole shebang

The Fuyu persimmon tastes a little like its cousin the wild persimmon, but is much mellower–like a very, very, very ripe apricot. Again, no sugar at all was necessary to add to the fruit.

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And you can’t beat the price.

*Wait till next year.

**Santa, please give me a couple of extra inches in height or a small, collapsible ladder. While you’re at it, generously disregard how much of that Endangered Species 72% dark chocolate with blueberries I ate yesterday. Thanks a bunch.

***A handy note about me: I didn’t grow up eating persimmons. I don’t know anyone who did, actually. I tasted one from a store many years ago and remembered it was good, but not much else. I just knew them when I saw them in the rolling hills, and figured everything else out afterward. This is a big part of the appeal.

You can also eat the Fuyu variety crisp, like an apple, but that’s earlier in the season. I needed to wait until the location was cleared out, like, say, on Thanksgiving. You understand.

 

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My mom’s potato salad with mayo, salt, black pepper, sundried tomatoes, fresh basil, toasted pignoles, and fresh minced garlic.

Last week I dropped my old PC and new laptop off to the kids* at the Microsoft store to do a data transfer. I wasn’t worried about system withdrawal. So I’d be without a proper keyboard for a few days—so what. So substantial agita ensued, that’s what.

That’s the bad news. The good news, which came as a total shockeroo, was that suddenly I was wild with energy and ideas. I needed to be creating something, producing SOMEthing, all the time. So I hit the kitchen. When I was 90% finished with one recipe, I’d start thinking about what I was going to make next. I’m not saying it wasn’t manic, but I sure ate well.

I note, with some dismay, that I didn’t take pictures of too much of what I made. I don’t remember what happened all that clearly, but best guess, I was too busy eating it all. My reputation precedes me.

Here then, a list. Made all of this within 2.5 days.

-Watermelon-lime smoothie

-Carrot cake with a blop of yogurt cheese on top that I stirred some cinnamon sugar into

-Panzanella with local, organic vegetables: basil, onion, cucumbers, and tiny heirloom tomatoes

-Bourbon-spiked jalapeno ketchup (which has already graced many a turkey burger, and I have lots more)

-White-peach vanilla jam

-Fried zucchini blossoms (going back for more because I have a delirious crush on them, not least of which because I didn’t torch them this year, and am obsessing even as I type)

-Potato salad

I have my units back now. But I have more peach jam to make, as well as a quart of beach plums to pit and jam up as well.

The beat goes on.

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Carrot cake. I bought the carrots from the teenager at Silverton Farms who had just pulled them out of the ground and washed them–she handed them right to me.

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Local organic heirloom tomatoes, Red Bank Farmers’ Market.

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That red stuff between the onions and the cheddar? That’s my ketchup!

*The unvarnished truth.

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Intelligent and Perceptive Reader: Wait, what? What happened to your early or mid-summer edible wild posts?

Me: Yeah. About that.

I was busy this summer. Most people claim work or childcare as their reasons for The Great Busy. Me, I crewed two shows back to back in July and spent August regrouping. Now here it is September, I’m late for my summer post, the honeysuckle is gone, I can’t wear white after Labor Day, and I’m irritated with myself. Next year I am doing a proper honeysuckle post with a recipe and everything. Syrup maybe. Just you wait.

In the meantime, here we are. Please keep in mind the advice I have given in previous edible wild posts:

1) Only eat a particular plant if you are 100% sure it’s the plant you’re after.

2) Don’t forage for plants off the side of the road because they’ve likely been blessed by household pets in a less than appetizing way.

3) Don’t forage for plants from neighbors’ yards unless you know they haven’t been sprayed and/or unless you are particular friends of the cops in your municipality.

In the picture above we have four lovely summer wild edibles common at the Jersey Shore and much of the Northeastern coastline. Clockwise from top left:

Beach plum (Prunus maritima)

I posted about this fruit a couple of summers ago in plum gig, and talked about my adventure foraging with my neighbor, Mr. Cook. He’s been picking these fruits all of his life (a solid 80 years or so, I am guessing). I gloated a little when I saw that one of Wikipedia’s shots was of beach plums on Sandy Hook, where he and I picked.

The plums are the size of red seedless grapes, and aren’t spectacular eaten out of hand. They’re best cooked with sugar to make jelly (Mr. Cook’s all-time favorite jelly) or in jam (what I like best).

Blackberry* (Rubus fruticosus)

Blackberries are in the Rose family. Fruits begin jade green, then become red, then a shiny black. When they’re really ripe, only one delicate tug is needed to have them fall into your hand. Blackberry canes (the thick stems on which they grow) are notoriously thorny, so go easy when picking or wear gloves.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

I first read about this succulent invasive about ten years ago, but it’s only recently that it’s become a bit of a darling in the culinary world. It’s lemony, can be eaten in its entirety—leaves, flowers and stems—and offers a hefty dose of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Best of all, you don’t have to grow it. I mean it. It’s probably all over your property right now, in plant beds, in sidewalk cracks, everywhere. The sprig in the pic above? Found growing happy and lush in the crack between the curb and street in front of my house. Purslane plants are the Kardashians of the plant world; they just won’t go away. But despite being inanimate, they’re higher on the useful scale.

Beach rose (Rosa rugosa)

These hardy plants grow in the dunes along the shoreline. Like all roses, the petals and the hips (coming in my fall post! To a WordPress account near you!) are edible. They’re thorny, like all of their rosy siblings and their cousin the blackberry. I’ve read that many beach roses smell wonderful. These didn’t have much of a scent, and the flavor was mild, like Bibb lettuce.

*”This article is about the fruit. For the smartphone and its manufacturer, see BlackBerry and BlackBerry (company).” –Wikipedia again. They’re so helpful.

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I first went to pick beach plums with my neighbor, Mr. Cook, two summers ago. I anticipated the experience through Martha-Vision: there would be a soft wind off the water on Sandy Hook, the early morning sun splashing across the landscape in shades of honey. The reality was a 10-minutes-after-crack-of-dawn trip that included rampant boot-level cacti and mosquitoes that swooped like bombadiers over 1945 Dresden. The picking was good, but those wretched creatures—their constant humming in my ears as they got me in their cross-hairs—stung me through jeans, a jacket, the bandanna on my head, and copious amounts of Deep Woods Off. Mr. Cook, an octogenarian and lifelong outdoorsman who shoots his Thanksgiving turkey every year, didn’t notice.

Sandy Hook is a narrow slice of sand between the Atlantic Ocean and the Shrewsbury River, just a few miles south of Manhattan. Mr. Cook has been picking beach plums there, from the same clearing, for as long as he can remember. The plums grow on bushes on a landscape that looks very much like the American Southwest, within scrubby vegetation that’s tough enough to grow in sand and endure both scalding sun and occasional flooding. They look just like regular plums, but are as small as cherries. Every year Mr. Cook picks a 1950s enamelware-potful and brings them to a woman in a nearby town, where she converts them into his all-time favorite jelly. Me, I like jam, so that’s what I made. It was tart and sweet, but quite unlike ordinary plums. Intriguing.

When Mr. Cook was growing up in the early part of the last century, only certain people were allowed to pick beach plums on Sandy Hook. When I asked how his family came to be among them, he said they had a friend who had a permit allowing her to go. I did a little research and learned that when the Lenni Lenape sold the parcel of land to the new settlers, a stipulation was added to the contract that allowed the native people to come back and pick beach plums every summer. So it could be that his family friend was among the few who could go.

The spot remains a popular if hush-hush place for picking beach plums. I’m not sure if the old permits stand, but I do know the state Parks System, which operates on the place, doesn’t like people picking there. Which is why Mr. Cook and I showed up with fishing poles in the back of the truck. He handed me an old cap like his to wear, and we smiled all pretty pretty at the rangers at the check-in gate. This year I went after 4pm, when the Park doesn’t charge admission, and bypassed the rangers entirely.

Before heading out I tried a folk recipe for keeping mosquitoes away. My sister found it online. You drink 2 teaspoons of cider vinegar in 8 ounces of water. It’s like slugging Hidden Valley house dressing straight from the bottle. But the critters laughed at Deep Woods Off, as you recall. This was my recourse.

Apparently there are beach plum bushes all over Sandy Hook, but I only know of one patch. It’s a right and a left, by car. In other words, not hard to get to. But I couldn’t find the street. I tried five times—yeah—and just when I started wondering if dementia or basic early senility was setting in, it dawned on me that maybe the government had decided to try to pull the old wool over my eyes and turn what was once a street into a bike path.

Ha. I am SO on to them.

The patch.

Sharp buggers.

It was slim pickins this year—I think I was maybe a week too late and someone else got to them first. (It wasn’t Mr. Cook. I checked.) But I picked a good amount, and I hit up one more really random place in Long Branch where I knew of a single bush, and picked enough to make a bit of jam.

I admit I don’t use a real recipe to make beach plum jam, or any other kind of jam, for that matter. Many years ago I read a woman’s account of her first time jamming, and I’ve followed her example ever since. She was amazed at how easy it was: You put fruit and sugar and water in a pot and boil the hell out of it, she said. With some fruit, you need to add pectin, which helps the jam to set. Don’t worry about it here. (Adding a good amount of sugar helps to set it, too. I don’t like too much sugar, though, so I tolerate jam that’s on the runny side. No worries.) Keep in mind that a ripening, pinkish-red beach plum contains more pectin than a fully-ripe, deep-purple one, so mix in about 25% ripening plums with the others. It’ll add a counter-tartness as well. Balance is good.

Here’s how I make beach plum jam. Play with my recipe if you’re an experienced jammer or if you’re feeling all devil-may-care. I always thought this jam would be great with a pinch of cardamom, or with brown sugar instead of white. Local honey is a great stand-in for sugar.

Wash the plums. They’re wild, so you don’t have to worry about pesticides. How nice is that? De-leaf them and de-stem them. Remove the pits with a cherry pitter, if you have one. If not, a sharp paring knife on a cutting board will work. It just takes longer.

Put them in a deep pot and add enough water to cover them. Add maybe 1 cup of sugar for every cup of plums. Add more if you want to have it on toast or stirred into yogurt; add less if you want to serve it as a sauce alongside poultry or game. Now boil (the hell out of it). Your goal is to let the water cook off and soften the fruit into yummy purple goo. Stir the mixture often with a wooden spoon and don’t let it cook down too much or the sugar will burn.

Ta dah. You just made jam. Take it off the heat and let it cool a bit, then store in your fridge. Eat it up within a week or so. Won’t be a problem.

P.S. I got one mosquito bite while picking. Revenge was mine, though—I probably tasted like vinegar.

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