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Posts Tagged ‘wild mint’

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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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I used to hate fresh tomatoes. Growing up in New Jersey, that was as heretical as blasting Conway Twitty music on the street outside the Pony.* I said it anyway, though. And to be fair, the supermarket tomatoes I grew up eating were hardly flavorful. Grown strictly to withstand shipping and handling, picked unripe and hit with ethylene gas**, they were pink, watery, and a bore on the taste buds.

Then maybe eight years ago I had a fling with an heirloom tomato and became even more smug in my distaste of remotely grown fresh tomatoes. Heirlooms taste like the berries tomatoes are: tender and richly flavored.

Yesterday I walked into Asbury Park for lunch—well, for the makings of it. First I stopped by a local organic farm stand run by a woman in a floppy straw hat. When I picked up one of the two tomatoes on display, I asked if she had raised them herself. She said she had, and warned me that the tomato I held ‘wasn’t perfect.’ I gave it a little squeeze, and a tiny bit of juice oozed out. It was probably two hours off the vine, a youngster in a new town. I told her I don’t care about perfect, and bought it.

Then I went to the bread stand run by a gregarious Roman guy. As he talked to customers he sliced up narrow anchovy-provolone sandwiches, casually handing bits to passers-by.*** Sold me two rolls for a buck. ‘Thank you, sweet dahling!’

Then I walked home, stopping by the lake to pick some wild mint.

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The tomato sandwich with basil is a time-honored thing, and for good reason. I figured mint and basil are cousins, so I’d give that a whirl. Picked a bunch—some for my sandwich, more for my friend who loves to cook and wouldn’t look at me the way the anti-Conway-Twitty crowd would. It takes a rare person, Jerseyan or not, who will not look at me askance for eating plants I picked by a lake. She is one of them.****

I sliced up the roll and gutted it a bit—I don’t like too high a bread-to-filling ratio—and added a slice of Trader Joe’s addictive mozzarella, a little bit of mayonnaise, and kosher salt. The juice from the tomato mixes with the mayo and makes the bread a little soppy, but that’s a plus.

You can try to build a quicker, better, cobbled-together summer sandwich than this, but it won’t work. Okay, maybe if you use two slices of cheese. I’m reasonable.

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*That’s bad. Trust me on this one.

**You’re smacking your lips at that image, aren’t you? I shouldn’t tease so.

***Several turned up their noses; I almost bit his hand off.

***This just occurred to me: the friend I mention is one of three good friends who are first-generation kids (Filipino, Italian, and Japanese). I find in cases such as this there is a stronger connection to where food comes from, and less of a tendency to be afraid of it. Kind of fascinating.)

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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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