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Posts Tagged ‘fruit’

I can’t complain. I mean, I can, obviously — just look at the news if you 1) live in the U.S. and/or 2) have a remaining iota of patience — but I’m healthy and sane, at least at the moment. So I’ll shush on the aforementioned.

Last week I discovered three new mulberry trees in my area. Three! One is on a road I have now dubbed Mulberry Lane, as this stretch of pavement boasts five trees, all within a quarter mile. Unless you count the geese, I am the only one who enjoys the fruit. Incidentally, it must be nice to be a goose. They go on a berry bender, eating all the dropped fruit, and then they lie down under the tree to sleep it off. Imagine sampling every single thing on the salad bar at Ruby Tuesday’s until you’re completely stuffed, then climbing into the shelled edamame to take a nap. It’s no different than what they do every day in late June.

I filled a mulberry order for the French bakery I supply (they made gorgeous chocolate mulberry meringue tartlets) and then went back to collect for myself.

The last two trees were right under my nose. One was a white mulberry tree — only the second I’ve ever met — walking home from a walk one night on street I’ve taken roughly seven million times. The branches are too high for little me, so I hope I run into the tree’s owners so I can ask permission to come back with my step stool. Always wanted to cook with these. They’re albino-looking versions of the black mulberries I usually work with, and they’re delicious. The bakery I provision doesn’t go for them. ‘People won’t buy them because they look like grubs,’ is what I hear every year, and what cracks me up every year. Maybe they should freeze them and resurrect them come Halloween.

The last tree was the sweetest surprise ever. It is the sole canopy for my favorite little nook on a lake bank, and one I’ve only been visiting for about 20 years. It’s also a favorite spot for fishermen as well as ducks, who like to cuddle together and take naps there.* I know that sounds like a Disney subplot, but it’s true. That’s how idyllic this place is.

One day I looked down and saw purple splotches. My jaw dropped behind my mask. It’s hard to complain when life keeps giving me gifts like this.

*The ducks cuddle, that is. Although maybe the fishermen do too. What do I know?

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Does everyone have a white whale? Something we’ve looked for all our lives, or it definitely seems it? And on wildly rare occasions we find it, but most often we end up like Ishmael — living to tell the tale, but that’s it?

I think I may have found mine. I’ll know in a few weeks.

It started with a hot tip.

When I told my friend Sandy that I forage for Concord grapes, he gave me a memory: During gym class he and his high school classmates would run along the treeline behind the school and snack on grapes that grew there. This was back in the ’60s, but I sometimes I see shows at this school and know that treeline still exists, because the road to the theater runs parallel to it. Last week I took a half vacation day and drove out there. Concords aren’t ripe until late summer, but the vines stick around. I’d be able to identify those.

The back of this property is far off the road. Besides the homeowners on the other side of the fence and stream, who weren’t around, and the school groundskeeper, who idly waved and kept mowing, I was alone. Ideal.

The vines were still there, after 50+ years. And they’re easier to access than my usual beloved spot. This is good, because as nature (and the ticks and vicious wild rose canes therein) swallows up more of the path every year, picking Concords there will soon require me to wear clothes that cover every inch of bare skin. It’s not a thought to relish in late August, so I welcome a Plan B.

This recon mission would have gotten an A+ if the grapevines were all I found. But next came the crabapple tree and cousins.

(Just a quick aside to let you know I am not a science wonk, let alone a botanist, by any remote stretch of the imagination. Do you need an example? Here you go: In college I studied my butt off in bio, but could not coerce the data into my grey cells if I’d had a crowbar. I expected to flunk. When I learned I had been awarded a D- for the semester, I was elated. At least I wouldn’t have to take the stupid course again. That’s how crap I am at science.

So why, with empirical non-prowess under my belt, do I notice that mulberry trees and elderflowers virtually always grow near water? And why did I realize last week when I saw members of the Rose family growing together that they often enough tend to?)

First I spotted an ancient crabapple tree. Then it was wineberry canes (which fruit in July and are profoundly tart. Imagine a raspberry after it ate half a bag of Sour Patch Kids, watched the remake of “Cats,” and suffered the inevitable existential crisis). Then it was wild rose canes, which might be flowers and nothing more, or might be wild raspberries, or blackberries. Either way, giant family reunion. They’re all Roses.

And so is the little white whale, the shyest member of this family reunion. I looked down in the shade and thought it was a stray blossom blown down from the crabapple or rose canes; they all feature a similar flower. Then I saw the serrated triple leaves and just stared.

For years upon years I have been hoping to come across fraise des bois, aka woodland strawberries, aka Alpine strawberries. Powerfully, intensely sweet — called a delicacy and deserving it — and far better known in Europe. I don’t know if it’s because there are more there or because we no longer have a foraging culture here in the U.S. and just don’t notice them. But I’ve never come across a wild strawberry during my hunts, beyond yet another Rose cousin, the wild strawberries that begin with a tiny yellow flower and produce a tiny bland fruit.

Woodland strawberries begin with a white flower. And I’ve never seen nor tasted a sweet one until, maybe, fingers crossed, if the deer don’t get them first, inside a month from when I write this.

You’re picturing me parking next to them with a sleeping bag, like I’m on line for Stones tickets, aren’t you? You’re not crazy.

A few weeks ago I read an interview with a guy who lives most of his life as a hermit. He said the best way to get through monotony, as we do now during the pandemic, is to find something you can track. Foragers never stop tracking — seasons, rain, sun, groundskeepers. Strawberries fruit in late spring, Memorial Day at the very earliest. This was a cold spring. But June is on the horizon.

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This is been a milestone summer for me. I’ve had to learn to balance a new job and commute, which provides what I need to survive, with time in nature, which provides what I need to live.

I’m not going to say it’s been easy, late afternoon- and weekend-warrioring. But man, those moments have been sweet.

This summer I found wild blackberries growing along banks I’ve wandered since I was a kid, but never noticed. Made tea from flowers and leaves I dried, made lattice-topped pies from olive oil crusts instead of butter (never thought it would work, but guess what), and made sure to throw a pebble into the lake just to hear the PLUNK that always, always satisfies.

For the first time, I saved my molars and got every pit out of the wild Concord grapes I found, smacking my lips on their tartness. Swapped in my beach plums for cranberries in my favorite crisp, and they were fantastic. Sneaked onto footbridges in the woods and onto the lawn of my shamelessly absent neighbor, where in the dark of night I shamelessly picked enough fruit to make sour-cherry tarts.

I sank my tired feet into powdery sand and let the wind and 360-degree pink-and-grey sunsets wash the stress off me. There were 17 seagull tail feathers at the beach the other night, perfect quills for my next production of “1776.” Was serenaded by a Russian mulberry-lover, very much off-key (don’t ask. Actually, do. Great payoff.). Discovered that honeysuckle blooms in fits and starts all summer, just right for drying, and jammed May-fresh ones into a bottle of Laird’s to flavor the whiskey. Twice I sat and watched the yellow sunlight sparkles chase each other over the lake, and once I saw a fleet of catfish making kissy-faces at the surface of the water.

Walked the trail at Monmouth Battlefields, the Revolutionary War site, and marveled that Washington and the boys withstood 90-degree heat on that day in June while in wool uniforms (many couldn’t, and succumbed to heatstroke). Sat down to take a shot of a lone apple, looking like a dropped musket ball, and spent the next 15 minutes plucking vicious grassy needles off my bum. Freedom has its price.

Yesterday I really felt the sun and wind and crunch of sycamore leaves as I trudged along the banks of my lake. Today, driving home, I really loved the different greys of the clouds, layered like deckled pages in a book, and felt the coolness — new to the season but old, coming back.

So the wheel starts its descent, so the fall of the year has begun. Falling with it.

 

 

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This time of year is a mad scramble for parents scurrying kids to graduations and planning parties; for kids sitting shoulder to shoulder texting each other on the way to graduation and planning their own secret parties; and for me, heading to the hedgerows and planning secret wild edible heists. And everything seems to be growing at once this year, so I’ve had to act quickly (and often under cover of darkness or in early dawn—more on that later).

A couple of weeks ago I had to dash to pick mulberries for myself and for a pastry chef before going out of town for a week. And now the elderflowers and wild black raspberries down by the lake are ready, and I found a sour-cherry tree on an abandoned property (!)

It’s go time.

(This will be the elderflower post. Stay tuned for what I do with the fruit. I haven’t completely figured it out yet.)

So Harry and Meghan had a lemon cake brushed with elderflower syrup, made from flowers growing on one of the royal properties. I absolutely adore both flavors but have never tried them together. Figured I can do this, and for far less (theirs cost an oxygen-sucking $71k).

I started with a lemon cake recipe in a French cookbook. It called for 1.5 cups of sugar, which also seems excessive. Instead I used 1/4 c of my elderflower simple syrup in the batter and saved the rest for apres-bake. Aside from that, I essentially stuck to the recipe: why not? I admire anyone who has you put four entire lemons, zest and juice, in a batter. I poured it into little tart pans, baked them, and docked them with a fork when they came out of the oven. Then they got a pour of that reserved elderflower syrup. Good God…a hearty cheers to the royal couple; this is an incredible combination.

Heads-up: This is the more civilized of the foraging posts I’m planning. I even listened to a bossa nova while I made these cakes. Next time I post the Chronicles of the Intrepid and Sometimes Ridiculous Forager of the Jersey Shore.

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Been a bit of an arduous Fall so far, as evidenced by the big wall of space between the last time I blogged (two months ago) and now (currently), but I’ve been tossing around lots of ideas. Let’s start with this one:

Every year at the end of August, I go beach plumming half an hour north on Sandy Hook, NJ, a six-mile stretch of pines, sand, WWII training ground remnants, and the odd white-tailed deer. A local pastry chef commissions me to forage for him throughout the year, and one of his favorite ingredients is beach plums, the little wild and astringent ones the size of cherries that grow on Sandy Hook. He candies them and adds them to desserts, and people go crazy.

This year I thoughtlessly* hurt my back a few days before my plum excursion. But I had promised Matt I’d get him a bunch of plums, and besides, after working so hard for so long I really needed a foraging fix in the near wilderness. I went. It took me about 45 minutes to get in and out of the car, but I went.

And despite my injury—or maybe because of it—I ventured more deeply into the wilds, and took more chances, and consequently found more plum bushes. Getting totally lost on this remote peninsula as night was coming on would be a serious matter. But I needed to get lost a little.

Beach plum bushes in this area are ancient and leggy and scratchy. You have to maneuver your way into the center of them in order to get the most fruit. This work is not for the fearful or dainty. I never remember to wear a long-sleeved shirt, I always pay for it with slim cuts up my arms, and every time I’m afraid that standing on one foot and reaching will one day make me pay even more dearly if the aged branches give and I fall into poison ivy. It’s difficult enough work without an injured back.

But I got several quarts of plums, and while standing in the middle of my last bush, so old and tall that it was all dry leafless twigs, I reached, and was surprised that its brittle bones didn’t give. The farther I reached, the more resolutely it gripped me. It didn’t let me fall.

 

 

*I have a little problem with feeling invincible, and not surprisingly, it can get me into trouble. In this episode, I lowered a heavy six-foot upholstery table without help** and felt it in my lower back for two solid weeks.

**Don’t do this.

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My Grapes of Wrath shot. Western meadow, Locust, NJ.

I got myself into a proverbial pickle this past weekend, working really hard and zipping all over the place for work, but forgetting to stock the larder. Well, part of it was Foodtown’s fault; I usually get ground turkey at Trader Joe’s, but the prospect of shopping there on December 23 (let alone Christmas Eve) put me in the cross-hairs for a panic attack. I love TJ’s, but not in December. A shopping trip there earlier this month compelled me to call the place a Ralph Lauren-encrusted Night of the Living Dead. With oversized tins of salted-caramel toffee.

So it was off to Foodtown, where they had ground turkey but with no price tag, and I had no energy to go to customer service to find out what it cost. I went home and did what my peasant forebears did: cobbled. Then gobbled. And gobbled well.

  1. Defrosted some chicken legs, made broth, and added bits of chicken. Dried leftover thyme went in next, and some soba noodles from my pantry shelf. Seriously capital stuff.
  2. Cut up leftover apples, mixed them with fresh cranberries and ground ginger, added oats and toasted walnuts, and made a huge pan of fruit crisp that I’m semi-embarrassed to admit that I destroyed in two days flat. Semi.

Then the craziest thing happened: The weekend kept surprising me, stretching everything that was lacking. And not just with food.

As I was halfway out the door, headed to the park to hike and take pictures, I realized I hadn’t recharged my camera battery since Hector was a pup. But it was too late to do it then; the sun had already started its decline and I couldn’t afford to lose any more light. I’d have to shoot until the battery burned out…and that might be after one shot. Or none. But it never happened. And I took nearly 30 shots.

And before I started out I remembered I needed gas. Gulped, kicking myself for not getting it the day before, because are gas stations even open on Christmas? My dashboard warning light had come on and I didn’t want to risk an hour drive, round trip, and then getting stranded while gas station workers (and everyone, really) were where they deserved to be—at home and drenched in eggnog. But first try, at my own hometown station, a guy was there. I filled up without another worry. Maybe he doesn’t like eggnog.

Even the sun hung in for me: When I arrived at the park the sun was still up but I felt it fading, and scrambled to shoot. Then out of nowhere it roared back, glowing a fierce amber and giving me another 15 minutes. I was shocked, but I shouldn’t have been by then. It’s as if the universe was saying no matter what little I have, it will stretch a bit further if I need it to.

Christmas is over and I made my way back to Foodtown (but not Trader Joe’s just yet, mind. We’re still shy of New Year’s Eve), but I’m not done cobbling in the kitchen with stuff from beforehand. I still have broth left. Guess what else I found? Two onions, bread chunks I saved in the freezer, and a wedge of Fontina.

2017 is on the horizon, and so is French onion soup.

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Many people have told me when they see this shot, they think of the Wizard of Oz. Minus the tornado. Locust, NJ.

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Stollen

Short and sweet tonight, quite like the little number above. I love making stollen this time of year, and had some fun with the recipe, from The Joy of Cooking.

-Doubled the amount of raisins (I like a lotta fruit) and used orange rind instead of candied orange. Soaked them both in my homemade apple vodka to fatten them up.

-Decreased the amount of sugar to just two tablespoons and you couldn’t even tell. Although, now that I think about it, the apple vodka probably had a pretty solid hand in that.

-Used just shy of a stick of butter instead of the 1.75 sticks they called for. The dough was slippery as a politician in November even so. Wacky.

-I used half all-purpose flour plus half whole-wheat pastry flour in the dough. Again, couldn’t tell. I can’t imagine it would do much to counteract seven tablespoons of butter, but Lord knows I’m enjoying the pretense.

Took it out of the oven, ran an errand, got back a couple of hours later, and ate two slices just barely warm for lunch. It was tender and full of fruit, and had a crackly crust. On a chilly day—heck, on any day—it was profoundly soothing.

But I told my Facebook friends the hard truth.

Pros to living solo: having an entire stollen to yourself.
Cons to living solo: having an entire stollen to yourself.

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Flagrant imitation of a Four and Twenty Blackbirds shot. Their pies always look like the work of a New England grandma, made as geese fly overhead and honk faintly, wistfully, as wood smoke curls into the grey clouds.

My pies tend to be fruit based. Or homemade low-fat vanilla pudding + fruit based. This is because I’m usually the one eating my pies, and if I made pies like the above for myself, I’d be as big as a Boeing*. I made it for my friend Matt’s annual ‘Pie-Day Friday’ party**, for which he requested something that comprised his favorite combination, chocolate and peanut butter. This is also my own personal kryptonite, so I was happy to oblige him.

But it was strange, and not just because Martha Stewart’s recipe was written too loosely, and not just because her staff has a worrying obsession with writing recipes using off-sized baking pans that no one owns. It was odd to make a pie crust and fill it with peanut butter and chocolate, and no fruit at all. And they have you press in bits of homemade peanut brittle into the peanut butter. There was a lot of leftover brittle, so I ignored the instruction to drizzle more peanut butter on top (which was easy to ignore, as I don’t own a microwave to melt it, and warming it in a pan just burns it and makes your house smell like the boiler room at J.M. Smucker. Hypothetically speaking.) and instead I just stuck more pieces of brittle around the edges, Stonehenge style. It was odd, and all told, it was honestly less of a pie than a giant round candy bar.

But conversation noticeably dried up for a little while while the guests ate it, so I know it went over well.

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It didn’t call for fleur de sel, either, but there it is.

*W├╝sthof-sharp analogy that will be dated embarrassingly soon, like circa Thursday morning, so I hope you’re reading this is in a timely fashion.

**The invitation said to bring leftover pie from Thanksgiving or to bring a new one. I asked Matt, a prosecutor, ‘But if we all walk in with pies, wouldn’t that leave you with still more leftover pie, necessitating yet another pie party?’ He replied, ‘Tell no one you have unraveled our scheme.’

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When I learned a few years back that crab apples weren’t just decorative, I went a lil nuts. First I made them into schnapps (electric red and fantastic), then I made applesauce. One significant lesson: They’re a pain in the patoot to work with (they have tiny seeds like sesame seeds), and can be dry. I now turn on some good tunes to keep me company while chopping, and hit them with the schnapps for sweetener and to juice them up. That helps.

Recently I picked a bunch of my usual red crab apples by the lake and put them in the fridge to work with later. (Like their cousins, your regular cultivated apples, they keep very well.) One day soon after I was driving along a busy stretch of highway and spied trees with deep yellow fruit. I flipped out a little, not so much that I was a menace to the other drivers, but just enough that I pulled into the nearest lot. Thinking they were wild persimmons, I scampered back along the road, came upon the trees…and saw they were crab apples. Just yellow ones.

Bummed out a bit. I only know of two wild persimmon trees in the area, and I get the stink-eye when I forage there, so this would have been a solid find. But no. Turned around, headed halfway back to the car, then said, ‘Although. Yellow crab apples. That’s new.’ And so I turned around again.

(Hence, TIP: If any of you happened to see someone pacing back and forth along Route 36 in Oceanport, NJ last week, like the girl version of Hamlet in a black leather jacket, that was me.)

They were really healthy for fruit from wild trees. I picked a bunch. Here’s how they look in my bag….

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…and here’s how they look cooked down with their red brothers, on top of toast and a layer of mascarpone for teatime…

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…and, non sequitor, here’s the author. Today is my birthday, and I shot this in early July. This is what almost 47 looks like.

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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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