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Posts Tagged ‘mint’

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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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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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Sometime last April my friend Casey and I went to a shiny new hotspot in Red Bank. I wanted to look around and get a quote for a short article.

We ended up staying for two hours, mainly because we came on a Sunday night. (On Friday and Saturday nights they’re six patrons deep and belly up.) But since it was a slower night, the three young and immensely friendly bartenders had the luxury of chatting us all up. And the chattiest, Brent, had a command and passion for mixed drinks that was just shy of bewildering. He told me he loves new ingredients, I told him I forage from spring to fall, and promised him some honeysuckle syrup to try once it was in season. He was super stoked. Tonight I brought some by.

Walked up to the bar and the guy at my left asked if what I was carrying was the honeysuckle syrup. My heart plunked into my stomach. Apparently Brent had told the whole bar I was coming. I had just the little 2-cup Gladware of it, and he hadn’t even tasted it yet to be sure if he wanted to serve it. ‘We’ve been waiting for it,’ the guy grinned.

I worried in vain; Brent called the syrup awesome. And in the hour I was there he mixed it up five different ways, all off the cuff, just a splash in each. One invention had egg whites frothed on top; another had intensely fresh mint from his yard. The one he made me (above) featured the syrup with vodka, ginger, hibiscus, freshly squeezed lemon and grapefruit juices, and St.- Germain.

The nuttiest thing goes on at that bar on Sunday nights: everyone becomes old chums in about 37 seconds. The guy at my left, grateful to me for his imminent custom honeysuckle invention, offered me one of his fried goat cheese-raspberry puffs before I’d even flagged down Brent. Which was good of him, considering that drink was fantastic but went down like gunpowder. And I enjoyed a lively kibbutz with the couple at my right and gave them sips of my drink for a solid hour before I even learned their names (Tania and Daniel, hello again; and you have smashing taste in drinks as well as in local restaurants).

I think this is what European pubs must be like. You have guys behind the bar who know what’s what, love what’s what, and love talking about it. I’m not much of a drinker*, but I am a nerd; and let me tell you: their passion gets all over you.

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So far this season we’re at two spanking new honeysuckle recipes and counting. Feeling groovy.

*Writing while still somewhat buzzed after one drink, lightweight that I am. Let me know if this reads like a diary entry from a Delta Gamma pledge, will you?

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Today on Facebook I posted about the times last summer when my buddy would write to me, having just opened his box from his CSA*, and ask what in the name of all that is holy were these short green fuzzy things. He’d include a photo. (They were okra.)

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These are lumpy yellowish-greenish appley pear things. (Quince.)

Another time he told me about a whitish greenish vegetable with ferny things growing out of the top of it. I told him to slice off a tiny bit, then asked if it tasted like licorice. He did, and it did, and he was so excited to report back. (Fennel.)

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Smells a little like mint. (Because it is—wild mint.)

I find this kind of conversation very enjoyable, so today I extended my identifying services to everyone I know on Facebook. More and more people are buying into CSAs and their spectacularly fresh, local vegetables, but don’t always know what they’re looking at, let alone how to prepare it.

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Sort of squishy streaky purplish things. (Figs.)

In the case of the okra, I suggested he fry them, or make a stew and let them goop themselves out. You cannot thwart the okra when it comes to goop. As I must write, and take pictures of broken things I find on the side of the road, so they must goop. Might as well let it thicken your stew.

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Um, they’re long and covered with dirt. (Fresh horseradish.)

For the fennel, I suggested he shave it thinly with a mandoline and use it in salads. If I recall, he found success with both vegetables, though decided not to try the okra on his two young boys. Ate it up himself. I’m still not entirely sold on it myself. Maybe another year.

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Fat zucchini? (Close enough. Summer squash covers it. I used to know the name, but can’t find it!)

As I posted to my friends, I love the prospect of playing Julie McCoy and introducing someone to a new vegetable. I love helping people to give in to curiosity, and a new way to think, and a new way to cook.

But mostly I love feeling as though I’m giving people accessibility to what the earth gives. I’m such a nerd, I know, but I find it incredibly exciting to come across a new fruit or vegetable, especially if it’s local. And I know at least one other person who feels the same. Maybe it’s because we’ve become so jaded, with information powering at us from all sides, all day and night, and feel as though there’s nothing new to see.

I know digital information can and does make our world bigger, but to me…it’s almost always more rewarding to make it bigger not by looking at a screen, but down at the fertile ground.

*CSA: Community-Supported Agriculture—a great idea. People buy shares in a local farm, and get the spoils of that farm, all season long, as ripe and delicious as can be.

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In every story worth telling there comes a point when the narrative plateaus, and in order to advance the story to a new place a Something needs to happen. Sometimes the Something shows up as a whisper, sometimes as a Steinway to the head. Either way, it’s guaranteed to move things along; and with any luck, bring the story to a right and happy conclusion.

Narrative #1.

Last summer Matt, an awesome pastry chef I’ve worked with, told me he picks wild raspberries in a park nearby. And he was kind of nonchalant about it, like it wasn’t a big deal. I said something along the lines of ‘cool,’ and didn’t exactly rush out there. I figured he cleaned out the couple of raspberry canes he found, and either way, how would I find them in a 787-acre park? I didn’t know how he found them. At their thorny wrath, maybe.

Yesterday while parking my car I noticed the wineberry canes (a cousin to raspberries) I found last summer, and was reminded of the conversation I’d had with Matt about raspberries. I drove out to the park, thinking if I found them, I found them.

You might say I found them. 787 acres though there may be, 785 of them were prickly with raspberry canes. I’m serious—pretty much everything that wasn’t trees or skunk cabbage was a raspberry cane. I’ve never seen anything like it. Along the road. Deep into the woods along a scrabbly trail*. Even organized over a trellis. That’s why Matt was so casual about it. All of Monmouth County could pick them and have enough to sprinkle on their Frosted Mini-Wheats for a week. But this is one of those times when I’m glad John Q. Public tends toward the clueless, because I have big plans for when the fruit shows up this summer.

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See you in July.

As a bonus, I also came across four very old apple trees in blossom. Can’t wait to see what kind they are. I’ll be back for those in October.

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With four baskets.

Next narrative, and again it starts in the summer—many summers ago, actually.

I grew up at the beach, and the lagoon at the northernmost end of our beach was my favorite spot. It was sort of like a sunken living room, encircled with enormous rocks and containing powder-fine grey sand. My sister and I and our friends would play and hang out and dig for sand crabs there. People harvested mussels there, too, piling them up in pickle buckets to take home. It was a soothing and generous sanctuary.

Last summer it was announced that the lagoon would be filled in with sand as part of a massive beach replenishment project. Its intent was to hold back the ocean a few hundred feet and reduce the stress of the people who owned oceanfront property.

I cried the way I would for a death, because it was, as well as a 40-million-dollar waste. It’s sand, people. It moves. Filling in the lagoon destroyed ecosystems and ruined surfing along this part of the shore, and for what? It’s all going to wash back out to sea anyway.

Which is why I stopped crying, but it doesn’t mean I’m ready to go see the what the bulldozers have wrought. They filled in the lagoon a week ago, and since then I’ve taken my walks in the opposite direction, to the lake. Our public works guys cut back a lot of the overgrowth along the banks and I was hoping they didn’t take out the wild mint. They did, but no worries—it did what mint does: grow. Here it is, all new and tender and dark green.

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And coming soon to a tabbouleh near you.

That cheered me up a lot, seeing it so healthy and happy. Nature always wins.

So there we have it, a wineberry whisper and a lagoon Steinway, two Somethings that advanced my story and brought me straight to raspberries and mint (and hey—apples, too!). I’m stoked.

And I’m posting a shot of the lagoon—not as it is now, but the way it was, and the way it will be again. I can wait. And I’m not worried.

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*I cannot resist a scrabbly trail. The kind four white-tailed deer know about and no one else. Once I almost got lost in a Polynesian jungle because of this weirdo idiosyncrasy of mine. And brother, if you think everything looked alike in the park I’m talking about above, go hiking in the heart of Mo’orea sometime. Everything—trees, plants, the trail itself—is the same otherworldly green. And the deeper you go into the jungle, the darker it gets.

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When I was a kid, the jobs that required unusual patience were given to me, for better or worse. My sister Amanda will remember that I took over the Easter bread dough every year at the very end of the process, when it needed cup after cup of flour kneaded into it until the dough was smooth and elastic. It’s tempting to add it in a heap and get on with your life, but then you end up with a mucky, sticky, dusty mess. It has to be done slowly.

Then there was melon-balling for our Fourth of July barbecue. I’d work the flesh out of half of a watermelon the size of an ottoman and add it to honeydew and blueberries to make fruit salad. Then the whole shebang would go back into the watermelon half. This took a while, and there was no way to cut a corner.

Along with not rushing the processes we can control, I wait for seasonal produce. I know I’m an exception. But I maintain that waiting all winter means a kaboom of true green flavor when you bite into that first stalk of roasted asparagus, greenness that gets right in the face of all of the cold and mud and ice and grit you’ve endured for months. It tells you, without question, it’s OVER.

Waiting means strawberries that are so ripe that they stain my fingers red when I pick them, and taste like sunbeams. It means the immense joy of a warm, slightly soft, utterly ripe heirloom tomato; a freshly picked apple that cracks audibly when you bite into it; and the mellow richness of a Lumina pumpkin, chosen from a wagon 32 steps away from the vine where it snoozed in the sun all summer. (Mario Batali got almost misty when he described the flavor of fresh fall produce: “You can taste that the ground has changed.” I can’t do better.) Our ancestors had no choice but to wait for what grew, and reaped the benefits of waiting. They knew from flavor.

There’s an art to holding out for something until it’s ready. Bite into a peach that’s gorgeous and hard as a rock and you’ll get a mouth full of nothing. A blackberry that’s glossy and firm guarantees you an almost painful tartness. A ripe berry will fall off into your palm with the gentlest tug. Forcing it means it’s not ready and not worth the lack of flavor.

Sometimes fruits and vegetables look (to our persnickety, Madison-Avenued eyes) their worst when they’re the most delicious and ripest. Passion fruits are ready when they’re half shriveled. One of my readers, a retired Southern farm wife, swears by the exceptional flavor of summer squash that’s covered in blemishes and warts. And fresh figs—they’re hardly worth eating if they’re not cracked and oozing.

You won’t find produce in stores looking like this, because consumers have grown detached from what food looks like when it’s ripe, and won’t buy it. Seek it out at farms, farmers’ markets, and orchards if you can’t score some off your neighbors who have a fig tree.

There’s an art to waiting for edibles and for non-edibles, for the things we can control (a little or a lot) and the things we can’t. And while I have been credited with having great patience…full disclosure, it ain’t always easy. Sometimes the art fails me. Sometimes it’s bloody hard.

This helps: I think back to a couple of weeks ago when I took a walk along the lake and found two or three patches of wild mint. It’s growing in profusion, because mint can hardly grow any other way. No one planted it. The universe deemed the time and place right, so up it came, and healthy as the day is long, too. If I tasted it in March, it wouldn’t have the bite and sweetness it grew into under the sun and rain all of these months. Mint, like all growing things, is ready when it’s ready. It’s a reminder that I can work for the things I can control, but everything else will come in time, the way it’s supposed to. That’s a comfort. And I couldn’t stop it if I tried.

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I’m feeling inspired.

Many, many of you have generously offered up your gorgeous recipes since I started writing a couple of years ago. I’d love more.

So here’s what I propose: A cooking tour—your recipes, me cooking and writing about them here on Eve’s Apple, and both of us talking about them afterward. I want to celebrate home cooks and what they make. And I think it would be fun to cook my way around the world if I can.

Here’s how you come in:

1) Send me your favorite recipe if you haven’t already.

A photo would be great, too, so I know what I’m shooting for. If I like it, I will add it to my list and cheerfully contact you to let you know. Please, no follow ups.

2) Stick to simple home cooking.

Most of you know this about me, but just to emphasize: I am far, far less impressed by the fancy, the fussy, the contrived and the eye-popping than in authentic, regional, humble dishes that focus on quality ingredients.

Soft-boiled eggs with dippy soldiers from Great Britain, melon jam from Greece, and fried zucchini blossoms from Rome are ideal examples of what I’m looking to cook (and I’ve received wonderful recipes of all three—thank you).

3) Send clear instructions of the recipe and the history behind it.

In other words, please tell me this sauce was your mother’s or grandmother’s favorite, or that your cousin has been making this potato salad for your family Labor Day picnic since 1956. I do love a story.

4) Allow me to do some light editing of the recipe if necessary.

5) Perimeters and no-go’s:

Please avoid…

-Recipes that call for cake mixes, MSG, processed foods and other artificial stuff. Chemicals can give me migraines.

-Anything too pricey, huge or difficult to find. If you’re a Laplander and want to offer your recipe for reindeer steaks, please know I’d dearly love to try it, but unfortunately, suburban New Jersey, USA doesn’t feature such things.

-Recipes that were found online, from a magazine, etc. I’d like ones from your own collection.

I’ll eat most foods. But some I won’t, because of flavor, politics or allergies, like: fennel/anise, veal, Chilean sea bass, swordfish, turnips, mint, eggplant and red radishes.

And p.s., I don’t own a grill or a microwave. I have an oven and 4 stove top jets. Old beach house.

6) Provide your name, city and country.

Message me one of two ways: via LinkedIn, or via email at mcproco@gmail.com. If your recipe is selected, I will credit you with your first name only, city and country.

*

Just an FYI: I will not be cooking a new recipe every single day of the year because I gave up masochism for Lent. My plan is to cook as many as I can in a year’s time. But I’ll balance writing about this project with writing about other topics so nobody gets burned out and everybody stays chomping at the bit.

Deadline for recipe submissions is midnight EST, June 27, 2013.

Sound good?

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