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Posts Tagged ‘flowers’

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Today after hearing about the nightmare in Orlando I came across a New York Times article about a man who bought several acres of land in arid northern Morocco. There he built a house and created a lush garden full of fig trees and flowers. Not only did it require thousands of man hours hauling away tons of dry, depleted dirt and replacing it with arable soil, but the area also has its share of scorpions and vipers near the rocks.

So while I’m reading this and marveling at the beautiful job he did, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Yeah, but jeeeez! Scorpions? Vipers? One bite is lethal! Why on earth would you choose to live there?’

The answer’s simple: It’s because there are scorpions and vipers everywhere. We have to live in the mess. But we still, all of us, have a chance—I’d argue an innate duty—to make *anywhere* we live better, even if it’s just committing to smile at one person on the street per day.

(Caveat: this is not about tolerating abuse. If you’re in a place where one or more vipers are always in your face, make a change. Exhausted and demoralized serves precisely nobody.)

Building beauty, even in little tiny bits.

Steering clear of the rocks as best we can.

Finding peace under the fig trees.

Hell’s bells…such a caring climate might even make the lurkers more docile. Could it hurt?

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Let’s call this a companion piece to ‘dark & light,’ which I published a couple of weeks ago. The sunlight is fading, but instead of feeling loss, I can’t help but notice what a lovely richness it adds to almost everything.

The natural stuff is what I like to shoot best. It’s kind of like the fruit and flowers understand that light comes and goes, but that it’s okay, it’s good, it’s not worrisome. It’s as it should be. Were it otherwise, they would not gain such an extraordinary beauty in low light. They accept it and shine.

Sometimes I dial back the exposure in my shots in post-production; I like to drink in the beauty left over when there’s little light. Take some sips along with me.

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Golden raspberries. I shot this on an overcast day at my favorite organic farm, with grey clouds low and thick. There was no one around, and it was perfectly peaceful.

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Cherry turnovers. Shot in bright late afternoon light. I like how the sugar crystals glitter like snow crust.

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The cherries before they were tucked into the turnovers. Luscious and organic, and I eat them by the pound in late June.

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Meyer lemons. They really are that orange, and the low light toys with us: inside, they’re bright and sweet. My favorite kind of lemon.

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And a late-season hydrangea, just for fun. These grow in dense, shaggy hedges along the edge of my town’s borough hall, which is housed in a beautiful old English Tudor. The light may be low, but they’re lush and lovely nonetheless.

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High-tide line, Atlantic Ocean.

red light green light

the feeling of almost,/the door between worlds ajar, now,/as two lights dim and fade to black/shape shifting within square one/scary, illuminating, boundless/the taste of chocolate/warm possibilities/second, and third, and more, chances,/as many as I want/swirling in circles like the leaves/this night between two days/slowly slowly letting its cloak fall

*

I wrote the above almost five years ago, just before I was about to move out on my own for the second time in my life. It’s striking how often life requires this of us, whether it’s literally moving (across town, across the country, or across oceans) or figuratively moving (away from old thinking into new). The only thing we can safely predict while we’re on this big blue ball is that nothing stays the same.

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A box turtle, weighing his options on my street in 2010.

When I was moving out in 2010, I held in my mind a statement I’d seen recently (funny how you see and hear what you need when you need it, right?) that said the human default reaction to change tends to be fear, but why can’t it be excitement? Why can’t we choose to see change as an adventure? This perspective helped me a lot during that Matterhorn of a year. I kept reminding myself that being in square one meant being in the unique position of being a shape-shifter. We can do, go, be, feel anything in square one.

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Women chilling at the beach at sunset.

Here’s another one: I was crap at bio, but I remember this tidbit from one of my classes: it’s at the edges—where the water meets the sand, where the grass meets the wood, where one ecosystem abuts another—that the greatest diversity and activity are present.

Think of harbor cities, and how they tend to be filled with people, languages, and foods from everywhere. Think of the wet sand just at the high-tide line, where mussels, clams, and other bivalves lie atop the sand, with sand crabs and more below. Everything on the dry end is bumping up against everything that just came in. Think of inland, where backyards and mini-malls bump up against property lines, where the tidied and civilized meets the wild and unspoiled—those are the places you’ll find an abundance of wildlife.

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Beach plums, which the deer like as much as I do.

It’s at the edges, of sand and land, where children love to play and dream most. As soon as they’re old enough, beach kids are at the high tide line, running, digging, splashing. I saw some tween girls at the beach one evening not long ago, creeping around the jetty rocks which hold back the ocean. I asked what they were doing and they said, ‘Just looking around.’ ‘For a class or just for fun?’ ‘Just for fun.’* Grownups are at the water’s edge, too—fishing, harvesting mussels, walking, thinking. Much activity.

Go to a barbecue at a house that edges a little bit of tangled brush, and that’s where the kids are tramping around, their parents squalling across the yard to be careful of poison ivy. There are acres and acres of beautiful grass in my hometown’s ball field…and we kids ambled right across it to poke around in the narrow strip of wood at its edge. That was where the late-spring honeysuckle grew, perfect for a sweet hit on our tongues, and where we learned orange flowers taste sweeter than white. It’s where the fern-like plant, the one that closed up when you touched it, lived.** There was not a whole lot to discover in the flat, level grass.

It’s at the water’s edge and at the grass’s edge where I’m happiest, for the same reason the kids are. I never outgrew that. And bonus: it’s inevitably where the foraging is best. At the edges of sidewalks I find purslane. At the edges of my town I find wild crab apples, hibiscus, and mint. At the edges of park lands and fancy shopping plazas I find elderflowers. At the edges of the lake I find mulberry trees. At the Sandy Hook peninsula, jutting out into the Atlantic, I find prickly pear and beach plums. And every year, along the edge of some beach or some property line, I discover something new.

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The end of my road, overlooking the lagoon.

I live at the beach, at the very edge of a continent. With the exception of six years away at school—boarding and then college—I have never lived anywhere else, and I’d really rather not. College especially was an uncomfortable shock: I learned what ‘land-locked’ meant. Who would think a person could feel claustrophobic with miles and miles of open space around her? Who would imagine the sense of relaxation and reassurance that could come from being at a definite boundary? Last winter I spent many an evening on the jetty of my beach, wanting to stand as closely as I safely could to the ocean, just to feel that reassurance. It’s like the maps they have at the mall, the ones that show an X, a you-are-here, don’t-worry-you’re-good identifier. There is peace in that X.

We are all at the edge of a equinoctial change now, too. Here in the northern hemisphere, Fall is imminent. Halloween is derived from the Wiccan feast of Samhain, which marks the beginning of winter. It’s believed this time is a liminal one, when the veil between the world of the living and the dead is thinner and can be traversed by spirits. Some cultures leave food, light candles, and more to appease the spirits and keep them from haunting homes.

Very similar are threshold myths: In ancient times it was believed doorways were another kind of edge, another liminal place. Like the two ecosystems butting up against each other, there is potential for significant, and in this case possibly dangerous, activity; anything can happen in this divider between worlds. Spirits, some potentially harmful, were believed to loiter in doorways. This is why grooms carry brides over thresholds—to prevent them from being snatched away.

Edges are powerful places.

This Fall (and whenever we’re up against an edge), I hope we own the chance to be shape-shifters, and are able to chase away fear and own that power.

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*So much for attesting that kids can’t look up from their phones, huh? 🙂

**We never learned its name, but thinking back, it must have been carnivorous. How cool is that?

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It’s entirely possible* I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who, but as I picked honeysuckle this morning I wondered whether a plant growing in a particular place becomes imbued with the spirit and motivations of the people who spend time there.

It’s a sly sideways view of terroir, the ancient notion that says what’s produced in a certain area is the result of a confluence of factors that include sun, rain, soil, and more. The product, whatever it is, absorbs the qualities inherent in that particular environment. This gives it a singular flavor, one that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Many, many examples support this. There are San Marzano tomatoes, first developed in Italy. They’re prized among chefs, who attribute their intense richness to the volcanic soil in which they were grown. Connossieurs in India scoff at American-grown basmati rice (‘Texmati’), saying fragrant, long-grained basmati rice is not the same if grown outside India. Grass-fed New Zealand lamb has unsurpassed flavor and texture. I could go on.

If this is true, if tomatoes and rice and lamb can carry within them tangible components from their environments, how far-fetched is it to imagine they can carry intangible ones as well?

My favorite small farm is a half hour south of me. The food they grow is lovely. But I drive out there just as much for the serenity that wraps around me with the wind in those fields, for the peace that’s cultivated along with the English garden peas. I go because I know the integrity of the farmer and his family and staff. That integrity means their produce is more than an itemized scale of nutrients. It’s food plus a great deal of heart. And yeah, it tastes like it. At least to me.

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A hot water and sugar treatment. It’s like Elizabeth Arden for flowers.

Another example. Native nations in the U.S. often wore animal skins, bone, and feathers—not to be decorative, but because they believed in doing so they would take on characteristics of those animals. And who couldn’t use extraordinary strength (buffalo), regenerative powers (bear), and shrewdness (coyote)?

Let’s take it one step farther and throw people into the mix. I know I am the product of my many manufacturers. They include the food I ate, the sea-and-lake misty air I breathed, and the trees I played under as a kid. But they are also my parents, my teachers, my friends, the good and bad words, the wisdom and the idiocy. They all formed me as much as the pasta I ate. All were my terroir, and I’d wager so were yours.

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I’m mostly pasta, though.

Back to honeysuckle. It’s an invasive and grows almost everywhere there’s dirt and something to climb. But I still shopped around before I found my favorite place to pick the flowers. Didn’t want to pick too close to a parking lot, junkyard, high-traffic road, or residential yard. That’s about exhaust fume and pesticide pollution. But I’d equally dismiss flowers grown on perfect, organic public lands close to a contentious family, or near the home of someone who routinely chooses nastiness over kindness. It’s one of the benefits of living in a small town; information like this is easy to come by.

Tell me this isn’t the ideal spot: a fence maybe 12′ by 30′, and in between, a solid, opaque wall of flowers. If this honeysuckle hedge had eyes it would have within its view our little baseball field, train station, playground, and lake. Hundred-year-old trees shade it east and west, twice a day, and the rest of the time it’s blessed with full sun. All day long the flowers witness, and pick up the good vibes of, pick-up baseball games, kids on swings, canoers, dog-walkers, and families meeting tired commuters, the latter of whom always take a big breath when they step off the train.

It’s not all ice cream there, of course. Kids will get mad at other kids and yell, ‘No fair!’ Commuters have to go to work, as well as come home from it. There’s bad with the good. But that’s as it should be; and anyway, the good far outweighs. Even the honeysuckle flowers come in two different colors (orange and yellow), have two different flavors, and grow in pairs. A little of this and a little of that. Both are required for a well-rounded syrup.

It could all be in my head, this entire-environs theory of mine. But I don’t think so.

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On the below, which I dreamed up kind of out of nowhere: I liked the idea of pairing honeysuckle with almond, as they both share floral flavors. The chocolate garnish was inevitable.

1) I made the syrup.**.

2) Next came the custard. I used Martha’s vanilla pudding recipe. I left out the vanilla, and instead, once cool, I stirred in about 2/3 cup of syrup.

3) For the tart shells, I also used Martha’s pate brisee recipe, and substituted 1.5 cups of almond flour for part of the all-purpose flour called for. Baked it in cute little tart pans.

4) Then I piled up the custard into the shells, shaved some really good-quality bittersweet chocolate (Noi Sirius Pure Icelandic Chocolate, from Whole Foods) into the middles, toasted a few sliced almonds, and added those to the top, too. Made a heckuva good teatime treat today, along with the extra custard I ate out of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

(Did I say ice cream in a honeysuckle post? Honeysuckle…ice cream! Next on the hit parade. :))

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Honeysuckle Custard Tarts with Salted Almond Shells, Shaved Chocolate, and Toasted Almonds. Righteous ensemble.

*Let’s call it likely and move on.

**For more on the embarrassingly simple process, see last year’s post.

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The groovy thing about honeysuckle is you smell it before you see it. The other groovy thing is the stuff you can make with it.

By last fall I missed my chance on the making stuff part, and mourned about it here. This year, I’ve been picking flowers like a nice little Victorian who’d hit the Coca-Cola just a smidge too hard*, and making simple syrup infused with them. The flowers, not the Victorian and Coke.

Growing up we used to love to pull the stamens very gently through the flowers and drink up the drop of nectar that emerged. This past weekend’s syrup project was an elaborate version of this.

Step 1: Find honeysuckle, which, being invasive, is everywhere in the suburbs in June. I went for ones that weren’t on people’s property because it would likely have come into contact with pesticides. That and the homeowners might have taken issue with me swiping their flowers and all. Choose flowers that aren’t wilted, and get a mix of yellow and orange. The former’s flavor is lighter; the latter’s is deeper.**

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Step 2: Take them home and rinse them gently. (Inherently sticky plus dusty is an undesirable combination.) In a small, heavy saucepan whisk together 2 cups filtered water and 1 cup granulated sugar. Bring that to a boil. Then take it off the heat and immerse your flowers into it.

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Step 3: Wait nicely until it comes to room temperature, then strain out the flowers through a sieve lined with cheesecloth. Pour into an airtight container. Taste, and promptly swoon. (I wrote to my friends on Facebook: ‘If Hawaii were a liquid, it would taste like this.’)

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Step 4: Offer some to your favorite local bakery, whose pastry chef loves to work with infusions, then get mightily stoked when he uses it in whipped cream to top a lavender panna cotta.

Step 5: Muse on how to use it in mixed drinks, and call upon the prodigious powers of your brother-in-law, who knows from these things.

Step 6: Put a pint Tupperware container of the syrup into your bag and take it with you to your family’s party, where you meet up with your brother-in-law and try it with bourbon, lemon, and rum. Get opinions, and determine it’s pretty good in all cases.

Step 7: Ask your sister-in-law how she’d want it served, and taste her one part vodka to one part syrup over ice. Go a little delirious, because it’s that good. THAT good, which means a lot considering you’re really not much of a drinker, and become relieved that you’ve supplemented all of this experimenting with a wrap and a half of breaded chicken and romaine from Surf Taco.

Step 8: Your sister-in-law will name this last drink ‘The Vacation.’ You will deem it a most worthy name.

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*You know its history, right? http://www.snopes.com/cokelore/cocaine.asp

**I remember noticing a difference between the two flowers even as a kid. Funny the stuff we notice.

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It was a dark and poopy night.

Quite of few of them, actually, recently. Nothing earth shattering as the cause, but as all humans know, it’s not always earth shattering. A week ago I moved out of one building and into another, and whether this situation will be more positive is anybody’s guess. Didn’t get depressed—I’m lucky that that doesn’t really happen to me. But I go into new things with optimism and a lot of heart, and sometimes just splat the pavement. Another thing every human knows from. I was discouraged. The feeling went on for a week or so.

Then all of this madman* stuff started happening. And it’s wild enough that I put my planned post on hold till next week to tell you about it.

The First Thing: I’m walking to my car last week to unload more stuff, thinking poopily, wondering/hoping/wishing my luck would be better this time around, when a chimney sweep truck drives past me. I’ve never seen one, not ever. Who cares? says you, the thinking reader. I do, and history’s on my side: for centuries chimney sweeps have been considered to be harbingers of good luck. ‘A sweep is as lucky as lucky can be,’ right, from Mary Poppins? Apparently you can even hire them out for your wedding if you’re waffling about your chances. I’m serious. So this was kind of a knockout.

The Second Thing: Two days ago I walk past an empty house in town. A bit rundown, but I find beauty in hundred-year-old rundown houses. And although I’ve passed this house many times, I quite suddenly felt compelled to go across the lawn and look into the windows of the carriage house.

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This hook on the front of the carriage house is bigger than my hand. I wonder if it was used for the horses somehow. Does anyone know?

On my way up the lawn I look left at the overgrown hedges and see orange and yellow flowers. No way. Honeysuckle?! A few weeks back I had wanted to make a recipe with it, searched in all of the places I know it grows and found nothing. Figured it had died back for the season, and lamented about it in my ‘edible wild–late summer’ post. I taste the nectar of one, but it’s October and it had dried up. No matter. It was nothing short of a miracle for me that I was even seeing them. But there they were! I was aghast.

The Third Thing: As I turn to head home, I look down at the grass and see a tiny bright red spot. A flower? I kneel in the dew and touch it. It is a very, very small strawberry. But not just any. The kind that grows wild, the Alpine strawberry, the fraise des bois, the wild woodland strawberry. Coveted around the world for its intense flavor, and no bigger than a pea, it is my Holy Grail. This is no exaggeration.** It’s occasionally found growing around property borders. I know two people who have them in their yards, but they never get to eat them because the deer get to them first. But deer never come to houses a block from the beach.

And it wasn’t a fluke of a berry. I sweep my gaze across the grass and see dozens. Everywhere! In the overcast, early evening light, they sparkle like scattered rubies. I taste one. Like the honeysuckle, its time had passed. But now I know where to go on Memorial Day weekend next year, when they’re in fruit again.

I wish I could explain what this was like. I’m trying. It was so utterly, bewilderingly, galactically unexpected, and so exactly what I needed, that I actually choked back tears. Alpine freaking strawberries…in Allenhurst…that no one knows about. I went again yesterday just to be sure it wasn’t a hallucination brought on by the night air and poopy-thought saturation. They were there again.

So here’s the takeaway.

1) Whatever compels you, whatever you feel drawn toward, go to it. Okay, fine, as long as it’s not illegal, go. You can figure out what you were meant to learn later. Or sometimes the universe hands the lesson right to you. I have felt a pull like this many times in my life, and I always give in to it, no matter how inconvenient, because it always leads me somewhere I need to be.*** In my case: Relax. Everything’s going to be okay. And next summer you have two new wild treats to feast upon.

2) Keep your eyes open. There were in fact TWO strawberry patches, and one of them I walked right over as I was crossing to the carriage house.

For their weekly Shabbat dinner, observant Jews have two challah loaves on the table to signify God’s enormous generosity to them. He doesn’t just give them what they need; He gives them more—extra. The same sentiment is expressed in the Hebrew word and song ‘Dayenu’. It means ‘It would have been enough.’ God gives this and this and this and this and it would have been enough, but He keeps giving. This is how it felt—I was overwhelmed with custom-made treats. How to explain this? I guess it’s not necessary.

Still reeling at having found these berries; to imagine what I’m going to make with them seems downright greedy. But maybe by mid-winter I’ll sink into my sofa, imagine what they’ll taste like, and dream.

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Soaked the knees of my jeans to shoot this 🙂

*Hugs to Holden Caulfield for that one.

**Every girl needs a Holy Grail. And I’m not into Dolce & Gabbana handbags.

***Whovians will know from what episode this is paraphrased. Mad props to anyone who names it.

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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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