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Posts Tagged ‘lilac’

I haven’t had a second to write since I pulled the Easter bread out of the oven! This is a first, and I’m not jazzed about it. Being a contractor means you’re never bored and always busy. Which, as any contractor can tell you, is simultaneously great, and blows. Today was the first day in months that I haven’t gone Mach 2 with my hair on fire.* I’ve been so happy to relax a little, to start cooking again (brownies for my teenage cast and crew)…

Three sticks of butter plus cake flour mean they’re essentially a semi-solid.

to eat ice cream (hoooo doggy. Twice this week, actually, and both bloody spectacular)…

Chocolate-orange and coconut ice creams plus hot fudge sauce, all homemade, at the bent spoon in Princeton.

My beloved peanut butter moose tracks, greedily gobbled an hour ago.

I am unusual in that I am oddly, inextricably connected to nature; I must see and smell and touch everything new each season. This past month I missed my ephemerals. I only barely nuzzled the Kwanzan cherry blossoms before the rain took them down. I’ve never missed these, and the lack of them has affected me powerfully, like trying to breathe with the only one lung’s capacity. Subtracting them has not been not healthy for me.

But I’m dreaming about visiting the farm (finally open), foraging (wisteria right now, and much more to come). And I had the loveliest surprise a couple of days ago:

I thought I had missed the lilacs, too, blooming so early this year. Drove in between rushed errands to try to find some blossoms that weren’t spent so I could bury my nose in them, and didn’t have much luck. Then I happened upon a huge, lush group of bushes next to the art building at my alma mater, where I was finishing a prop contract. The school is at the opposite end of the state, and I’d forgotten that flowers there bloom later. The wind off the lake blew their fragrance around me before I even saw them, fresh and sweet as could be. I remembered the strange miracle of more: my theory that whatever we miss, somehow the universe makes it back up again. And then some.

*Gratuitous Top Gun reference.

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Last spring my friend Teresa told me about her boyfriend’s passion for St- Germain, an elderflower liqueur. She asked if I ever forage for elderflowers, because she’d love to give him a homemade bottle of the liqueur—or a close facsimile.

I’d never sought them out, didn’t even know if they grew in central New Jersey, but when I consulted the oracle of Google I learned they did.

Then I discovered three more factoids:

1) They start blooming right around the time honeysuckle is at its peak, so I need to hustle with honeysuckle so I can hit the elderflowers before they go to seed. Last year I missed the window.

2) Once you start looking for elderflowers in season, you start seeing them everywhere. Every major roadside in my area has clumps here and there, white pom poms waving at me from the street. They like to grow near water sources, from lakes to nearly-dry waterways deep in thickets. Where there’s water, there’s the elderflower. Often enough. And goodness knows New Jersey is a watery state, so yay.

3) You have to smell them to check if they’re sweet. They’re not like honeysuckle, which is consistent as the day is long. Some elderflowers hardly have a scent at all; others might even smell like the lake they grow beside. You want a sweet/grassy fragrance.

I brought my pastry-chef friend Matthew a few to work with, and he used them to flavor a cream topping. The rest came home with me and became syrup. For every four cups of flowers, I matched it with four cups of water (1 quart), and 3 cups sugar. Dissolved the sugar in the water in a heavy-bottomed pan and brought it just barely to a boil, then I put the flower heads in (rinsed in running water first), face down. Then I took it off the heat and let it cool.

After that, I set cheesecloth in the bottom of a colander set over a big bowl, and strained the flowers out. The syrup is a lovely light golden color and delicately sweet.

I loaded it into a freezer bag and added it to the freezer. Some collect salt-and-pepper shakers and skinny Elvis dishes. I seem to collect homemade syrup. The elderflower has taken its post with lilac, honeysuckle, wild mint, and wisteria, and are the divas of the frozen world.

Teresa is getting a bottle of the latest to give to her boyfriend to play with. She wants it to be a surprise, so I told her about it in code on her Facebook page:

‘Soooooo I might have some yrup-say that I made from owers-flay which you requested last ing-spray :)’

Pig Latin never goes out of style.

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Years ago Gourmet Magazine* published an article about a Scandinavian woman who, like the rest of her countrymen and women, grew up foraging. She took the lifestyle quite in stride, speaking of it the way the rest of us speak of lacing up New Balances. Hunting for chanterelles for breakfast with her grandparents, nibbling on bits of pasture as she walked home from school, she said with no pretense that her country was edible.

Someday I will forage in Scandinavia with faithful Swedish reader Pelle as my guide, I hope. In the meantime, I am determined to gobble up my own country, starting with the Jersey Shore. For the past couple of weeks I have been extracting local flavors and making simple syrups. Granulated sugar, cold filtered water brought to a boil, immersion—1:1:1.

My pastry chef friend Matthew made macarons with lilacs a couple of weeks ago, and you read about the results last week. I have since been drenching pieces of my olive oil-almond cake in it every day. The rest I poured into a one-gallon freezer bag, labelled, and popped into the freezer.

Matthew wondered aloud if wisteria is edible. I looked it up, discovered the flowers are (a member of the pea family. Look above: Don’t they look like sweet peas?), and grabbed my clippers. It dangles from the trees that surround my lake. I will not say how close I came to falling in, nor what the waterfowl were likely thinking as they watched me test the brush that was the only barrier between me, the brackish water, and them. I snipped a few blossoms (see above) and jumped to safety. Then I took them home, separated the flowers from the stems, and put the flowers in a nice warm bath. The flavor is lighter, sweeter, and more delicate than the deeply perfumed lilac.

Next up: wild peppermint, which I found last spring at a time when I really needed a treat in my life. Soon after I made a big bowl of truly fantastic tabbouleh, with all local vegetables and really bloody local mint. This time around I need a treat again and can’t wait until the tabbouleh vegetables are ready, so instead I clipped about six cups’ worth and made more syrup.

This one was a like a smack upside the head: The whole house smelled like mint for the rest of the day.

I have always hated mint-flavored things, never could understand the immense appeal of chocolate-chip mint ice cream. To me it always seemed like eating a giant, cold heap of toothpaste. But when you start with an actual plant, the whole ballgame changes. The peppermint syrup is grassy, pungent—a knockout. It, too, went into the freezer. And mint being mint, I know I’m good for more, as much as I want, until just after frost.

In cocktails, in marshmallows, in marzipan…there’s no end in sight to what I can do with these syrups. And don’t look now, but honeysuckle season is right on our heels. And elderflower, too. Another newbie!

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Below we have the fruits of my flowers: lilac, wisteria, and peppermint syrups, respectively. Totally digging that the mint at right is faintly green.

I can’t wait to see what else is out there. The earth never fails to be there for me, to teach me about starting over, and to surprise me.

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*Will I ever stop mourning the loss of this publication?**

**Nope.

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Burying my face in lilacs dripping with raindrops, getting my nose all wet and not even caring, was and is a favorite Springly pastime. Lilacs in bloom also meant school was almost over for the year. When I smell them today, decades later, they still smell like almost-summer: delicious anticipation.

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Lilacs are so insistently fragrant that I used to pick a bunch and put them in a vase on the front porch so I could enjoy them without getting overpowered.

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I once propped My Fair Lady with a teenage actor who carried silk lilacs and did not know their name. It always spooks me a little when young people don’t know the names of common flowers, but getting a chance to tell them cheers me up.

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Florence Nightingale wasn’t just a famous nurse—she was also a really talented statistician. She figured out a wild—but accurate—phenology fact: After a very specific amount of days after the last frost, lilacs bloom. I can’t find the amount of days, and it’s bugging me. But it’s been proven.

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I love seeing lilacs when travelling. Been lucky a couple of times to see them twice in a year—at home and then, in chillier climes, again abroad. Canada has a spectacular lilac arboretum which was in bloom when we visited one late spring. Deep purple, lavender, white, and even the less common pink hedges were lush and lovely for acres. In Scotland winding village roads are dotted here and there with tall hedges. They look exactly right by century-old cottages.

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One of my favorite writers, Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, tells of a great story of hope that she learned when digging up a leggy and spent lilac hedge. She said despite the fact that it was what she called ‘boots up,’ surrounding it were smaller hedges. They all led to the original plant; it was its parent. The children were all in full and healthy bloom.

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A neighbor long ago had a house decked out with lilacs—knickknacks, toiletries, even the upholstery on her couch. It’s fascinating how people can take to a flower. Was it all about the color or fragrance? Or did it remind her of someone or something, and she needed to surround herself with a tangible version of the memory?

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I used to frequent an ancient red clapboard building in a nearby farm town. There I bought jars of wonderful blackberry honey from a similarly ancient beekeeper. In the back, near the hives, were lilac bushes that towered over me. They had the biggest blossoms, the sweetest smell, and were the plummiest purple I’d ever seen. I asked the beekeeper about them and he said they had been cut from prize plants grown long ago and far away. The honey shop is gone, and likely the beekeeper as well. But every May I go back, remember the taste of his honey, and smell the lilacs.

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Last week I learned lilacs are edible and went a little lightheaded at the thought. First I made an olive oil-almond cake, and then I collected some lilacs. I found a lone lavender bush near an old gazebo at the lake; another old bush in a Methodist beach community near several century-old religious buildings; and visited the plummy purple bushes behind my honey store. Why do lilac bushes so often sit beside old buildings? It’s probably as simple as this: People long ago loved them as much as we do now. Tastes don’t really change.

I went home and made lilac syrup, stirring one cup of sugar into one cup of hot water until the sugar dissolved, then steeped the rinsed blossoms in it until the syrup cooled. The next day I poured some over a slice of my cake.

It’s overwhelming, isn’t it, that we can take in some kinds of beauty through sight and smell, while others we can truly…consume? Beauty doesn’t have to be separate from us, admired and then left behind. As long as we can make lilac syrup, we can actually, deliciously, be part lilac.

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This is the time of year when my uncle’s cherry tree would be starting to sprinkle its petals like powdered sugar over the yard. The tree wasn’t a tidy, perfect, Martha Stewart-esque magazine deal. You’ve seen those, the kind that are practically sparkling in some verdant pasture. This was planted a few yards from the tree house, next to the driveway, and almost hidden among other shrubs and trees. But those cherries—sour ones—made the best pies and cobblers I’d ever tasted.

Once my uncle lost interest in harvesting them, some ten years ago, he’d let us go over with a ladder to get them down before the birds or rain got to them. The pie above is reminiscent of the tree itself—not perfect—but like so many things in life, it was galaxies better than perfect.

A few years ago my uncle sold the house he and my aunt and cousins had lived in since the early 60s. The current owners must not have known what they had, because they took down the tree house and my uncle’s plantings and the tree with them. The yard is now tidy and prettified. But I remember it all, and can still taste those pies.

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Wildly gorgeous lilacs that still grow at the edge of the honey guy’s driveway.

Next stop on the sweet memory train is the above. I finally turned into the low gravel driveway one day to look around. What I found was an old man in an older building, in a small room lined with honey jars. He’d collected it all. The hives—weathered, seafoam-green wooden painted boxes—were stacked like lopsided sandwiches the end of the steeped gravel driveway. There were no decorations on the walls; it was plain shelving, the jars, and him. It might as well have been his garden shed.

And I never got his name, but haven’t forgotten his Steven-Wright delivery.  “This is the best,” he said, handing me a jar of blackberry honey. The local bees knew where to source the berries—there was a blackberry field just a few yards away. And the guy was right—that honey was impossibly spicy-fragrant with blackberries. “You’ll be back for more,” he said.

A month later I walked in and and he didn’t even say hello. Just looked at me and smirked, “Told you you’d be back for more.”

It’s now a women’s clothing store or some such nonsense, because there aren’t enough of those in the world while we can barely cross a Wegmans without tripping over jars of local blackberry honey, right?

Grr. And to further emphasize: Grrrrr.

Never had anything like that blackberry honey, before or since.

 

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Last stop is another regret, but thank goodness I had the foresight to take pictures before the owner ripped out his Christmas tree farm way off the road within an old-growth pine forest in order to build a cluster of houses with aluminum siding.

This place was a dream. A pine-soaked, wood-smoky dream. Your gloves and boots would be stuck with sap and pine needles and your coat would be dusted with the remains of funnel cake and then you got to take home a Christmas tree. The look and the feel and the smell of this place—I swear it was like Scandinavia or Iceland (wait–is it Iceland that’s covered with ice and Greenland that’s covered with green or the other way around? Crap.), not that I’ve ever been to either place. But that was the thing about it—you were there anyway. It was a dream. The particulars didn’t matter. That’s a picture of the view on the drive in to the center of it all, and the owners’ kids’ tree house overlooking the lake. Can you feel it?

They had a suckling pig twirling around on a spit. You’d pay for your tree at a cute little shed and the girl would give you loose apples to take home. And their hot chocolate was served in yet another cute little shed amid a bunch of others that sold greenery and the funnel cake. The hot chocolate was basic stuff, but it was creamy and hot and good; and the experience of drinking it just amplified the delicious sensory explosion going on around and above.

What are you still tasting?

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I learned a lot as I researched this post; mainly, that I need to make the radical decision to do all of my research early—like, say, before shooting. If I had, I would have made sure the lilac blossoms below were shot with the ones above. The way it is now, they look like they threw a Lego in the classroom and I put them in timeout.

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Totally hanging their heads.

Anyway. Part 2 of the edible wild series! The sun’s getting closer, it’s greening everything up, and lots of flowers that are blooming now are edible.

Some cheerful reminders:

1) Be sure that what you think you’re picking is what you are in fact picking.

2) Don’t pick from roadsides because dogs have a singular way of worshiping beauty in nature.

3) Don’t pick off other people’s lawns unless they’re pals who definitely don’t use pesticides, and besides you made them devil’s food cake pops last New Year’s Eve and they never said thank you.

Clockwise from top top:

Cherry (Prunus ‘Kwanzan’ Kanzan)

Cherry trees are in the Rose family. Look closely at a wild cherry blossom and a wild rose blossom; you’ll see the former looks like the latter’s kid sister. Pickled cherry blossoms and leaves are a treat in Japan, where an affinity with cherry trees is a sweet part of their nationalism. Note: Eat cherry leaves sparingly; they’re toxic in high amounts.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherry_blossom

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Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

I caved and included dandelion blossoms in this post despite the aggravation they gave me a few weeks ago while shooting my first ‘edible wild’ post. Today’s post needed a good blast of yellow, for which they should thank their lucky stars.

Blossoms can be eaten raw (fun in salads), or battered and fried. To me they taste grassy and slightly sweet.

umm.edu/altmed/articles/dandelion-000236.htm
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Violet (Viola reichenbachiana)

Violets are the cutie patooties of the baking world these days, especially when sugared and arranged on top of cakes. This practice admittedly smacks of Martha, which isn’t always appealing, but in this case it works. A couple of purple or white violets, which have a teeny splash of purple in the middle, look really cool on a cupcake.

I’d heard that violets have a peppery flavor, so I tried one this afternoon to check. It didn’t. Just tasted grassy. Then I thought I tasted a slight, late-in-the-game pepperiness, but it’s just as likely that the garlic I had at lunch was messing with my head. Don’t have garlic for lunch one day, taste a violet and tell me the deal. Their cousins are edible as well—the pansy tastes grassy and the Johnny-Jump-Up tastes like wintergreen. Blossoms and leaves are both edible.

americanvioletsociety.org/Cooking_N_Decorating/ViolaChef_01.htm

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Crab apple (Malus)

The apple is another member of the Rose family, and their blossoms are similar as well. These blossoms have a light, delicate flavor.

The twig shown was clipped from one of the wild trees that grow around the lake and provide the crab apples for my yummy jam every fall.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malus

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And in timeout we have:

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

I’ll admit I wouldn’t have known the lilac’s blossoms were edible if I hadn’t browsed around Anthropologie last Thursday and seen a book on recipes for edible flowers. Okay.

Intensely fragrant lilac blossoms can serve as a base for homemade syrups, jellies and infusions. But remember they’re like your great aunt who lives in Boca—she never, ever forgets your birthday, but smells as though she takes morning laps in Givenchy Dahlia Noir. A little goes a very long way.

whatscookingamerica.net/EdibleFlowers/EdibleFlowersMain.htm

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The Lilac Law

Lilacs bloom according to this algorithm:

1) Sum the squared mean daily temperatures (in Celsius) since the last frost.

2) Use an average of the past few years’ daily temperatures to predict the date when this sum will reach 4264.

Despite my distaste in math, I find this fascinating—not just that this law was figured out in the 19th century, but that it was figured out at all. But then phenology goes back centuries.

Phenology* is the study of natural cycles—how one influences the other, and how we can take cues from what happens. The first beech leaves that unfurl, the first flight of the swallowtail butterfly—every genesis reflects the fragile interconnectedness of soil, air, sunlight, temperature, and dozens of other natural factors.

Long before spreadsheets and calculators, growers created their own data by carefully watching and waiting for nature’s cues to sow their precious seeds. It was a question of survival, a much more in-your-face reality back then. With no Shop-Rite, and your nearest neighbor often miles away, carelessness meant rolling the dice on starvation.

Some of their data include:

When lilacs are in leaf, sow beets, cabbage and broccoli.

When lilacs are in full bloom, sow beans and squash.

When apple blossom petals fall, sow corn.

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Apple blossom.

Or, as Laura Ingalls Wilder writes in Farmer Boy (a biography about her husband Almanzo’s growing-up years on an New York farm in the mid-1800s), when the leaves on the ash tree are as big as a squirrel’s ears, sow corn.**

In the same book, little Almanzo eagerly awaits ‘the dark of the moon’ (new moon) in May so he can sow pumpkins.

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Another one. When you see these…

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(Bearded irises)

…set out transplants of these.

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(Melons. Clearly.)

I read that even Martha Stewart traditionally plants peas on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father swore by ‘Plant turnips on the 25th of July, wet or dry.’

(Compelling story: He also went goose hunting one fall day in the 1880s while he and the family were living in Dakota Territory, and, utterly dumbfounded, returned home with nothing. It wasn’t because he was a lousy shot; it was because the birds were flying high above the clouds—he could hear them—but not one came down low enough to shoot. They were getting out of Dodge, and at breakneck speed. In fact, he said the entire prairie was still; every living thing was hidden away. Another day that same fall he said he’d never seen muskrats’ dens built so thickly. He got his family out of their rickety little claim shanty and into a sturdy house in town in a heartbeat. Can you finish this story—have you read The Long Winter? Blizzards slammed the mid west for virtually seven months.)

Do you sow, or act, according to any of these ancient rules? What successes or failures have you had?

Do you swear by any other cues?

Has the fairly recent wacky weather (here in NJ we had snow Halloween 2011, and snowdrops came up right after Christmas that year) affected what you’ve done?

Does anyone work with Project BudBurst, the environmental group that asks people from all over to record when plants start sprouting in the spring?

*Not to be mistaken with ‘phrenology’, a study based on determining one’s character by analyzing the bumps on one’s head. (I’ve had two concussions. For me, the smart money’s on ‘a touch clumsy’.)

**About 1/2″ in diameter. Don’t go chasing us to compare. –A PSA from the Squirrels Are Faster Than You Commission

wrongplanet.net/postt63638.html

budburst.org/

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