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Posts Tagged ‘wild’

I’ve been eating strawberries close to three meals a day for the past week. This time of year we must, and must not apologize, because winter is long, my friends. Often enough it’s berries in a bowl with plain yogurt, but I also made two recipes to take me through breakfast with aplomb.

The top is a Martha recipe, originally written to accompany late-season summer fruits (which it does very well), but it sure doesn’t hurt with June’s best, either. This is a nubbly, buttery, tender pound cake that calls for semolina flour, ground almonds, and my favorite spice, cardamom. I didn’t slice the berries because I’m a heathen, but you could. Someday I’ll try the cake toasted with butter, but for now, it’s been soaking up berries and some of that plain yogurt, making it lovely and pink and damp.

Then there’s my never-miss, never fail traditional strawberry shortcake. The recipe is from my 1968 Time-Life cookbook, American Cooking. It’s the author’s grandmother’s, and she used to make it with woodland strawberries that grew in the brambles on her farm in upstate New York. I try not to think about how deliriously good it would be with wild strawberries and just take what I have, which is fine enough indeed. (Though I can’t lie: when I someday get my hands on woodland strawberries, their fate is sealed with this recipe.)

Take a hot, fresh, homemade buttermilk biscuit. Split it with two forks, butter the fluffy insides, close it back up, set it in a bowl, and top with sugared strawberries and cold fresh cream. Sweet fancy Moses, but that’s a good breakfast.

Okay, the below isn’t a strawberry recipe or any recipe for that matter, but I thought you’d dig it. In fact, disclaimer: all but the very top pastry (a chocolate-covered cream puff) are pretend. I made this tray last week for a production of ‘The Drowsy Chaperone,’ carried by the goofbally Gangster Bakers. They say stuff like ‘You biscotti be kidding me,’ ‘You’re really in truffle!’ and ‘One cannoli hope.’ I could go on, but I don’t want to lose readers. There are fortune cookies, too, containing theatre platitudes I made up like ‘Cold free pizza is still pizza.’

Made of craft foam, white Model Magic, homemade play dough, glue, gel paste, paper, and paint. I guess technically that’s a recipe. Got a bang out of making this, and there’s muffin you can do about it. 🙂

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For a dozen years I had as a neighbor an Army veteran, borough fire chief (in the 1950s), a gardener who outlived two wives, and one of the last true outdoorsmen from the Greatest Generation. He loved canoeing as a kid in the 1930s and said he knew every stream and byway of Deal Lake. He taught kids how to fish on Sandy Hook when he was in his eighties. He showed me the secret patch of beach plums that he’d been visiting every year since childhood, at first with his mother, and then on his own, to get fruit for his favorite jam. He hunted wild turkey every Thanksgiving week, teaching me all about those very smart and very fast birds, and swearing they made the best soup in the world. He’d wave at me from his tiny front porch, pushing 90 years old, and call out, ‘Still here.’

When he went into the hospital for a couple of weeks, he told me to help myself to anything I wanted in the little 10×10′ garden he planted between his house and detached garage, and I loved pulling sweet baby carrots for dinner. When I’d bring him a piece of coffee cake I made with my wild mulberries, he was one of the very, very few people who wouldn’t look at me like I was a mental case. He’d devour it, then grin and tell me to keep practicing.

In front of his little house grows a lavender rhododendron bush. One day, when his second wife was still living, he showed me a straggly rose bush planted in front of it and told me he really wanted to pull it out, but didn’t because she liked it.

We lost him a few years ago. I rode my bike past the house today. The rhododendron is still there, healthy and enormous, and taking over the yard. But it took me sticking my bike-helmeted head under the branches, and looking around in the dim light for a quite a few minutes, to spot what I was looking for.

He was a widower for a good five years after she passed, and never lost his sharp mind. He didn’t forget to pull it out. He left it because of her, and I’m probably the only one who knows. But I guess all of you know now, too.

Saluting Mr. Cook this Memorial Day. Your rosebush is still here. So are you.

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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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I love talking about food, so consequently I love writing about food. Between tight deadlines and the odd lousy interview, it’s not all ice cream*. But I do think there’s a place for intelligent foodspeak. Granted, there’s plenty of frivolous (‘Fun with Cilantro!’) and half-baked** (‘I Went Vegan For a Week and Whined My Way Through It’) content out there, but dismissing the genre as a whole is just as frivolous and half-baked—the equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

So. Here’s why I write about food and why I think it’s relevant. In my case, it’s mostly about teaching. I love:

-Introducing or re-introducing people to the seasons. Years ago a co-worker told me she didn’t know watermelons grew in the summer. I can’t blame her; how could the average person know when they’re offered at Shop-Rite all year? But I’m still shaken by it. I write about food because I want to teach people when produce grows. And it’s not just because I’m an avid supporter of local agriculture, and because food will be cheaper, easier to come by, more nutritious, and tastier if purchased close to the source and in season. I want to teach them when it grows because it can help repair the disconnect between ourselves and the earth. Besides breathing, sleeping, and kvetching about politics, eating is at our fundamental core. Knowing where our food comes from can provide a deep sense of peace and balance…not to mention incentive to do right by the earth.

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Still available at farmers’ markets. Pull out the seeds, scoop the flesh into your blender, add lime juice and zest, and blitz. It’s a great thirst quencher—and has no added sugar.

Showing people that cooking isn’t beyond them. Most food shows are less about instruction than they are about entertainment, which means bravado and fancy knife work. They can be intimidating to first-time cooks or to those whose skills are rusty. I want people to know that our world’s most treasured recipes were likely made in a makeshift kitchen with crappy light, over a fire or smoky coal or wood stove, with dodgy equipment, and with leftovers. The common denominator, by a long shot, was a woman determined to feed her family. If she can do it—without All-Clad or track lighting—you can.

-Being able to share what I learn in the kitchen or in the field. I absolutely love trying new (in my case, that usually means vintage) recipes, tweaking, and tasting. And I love taking a walk and spotting something edible. It always feels like a present, and I giggle all the way home. I suppose in another life I’ll be into Christian Louboutin shoes, but this life granted me a thrill in wild discoveries. It’s a cheaper pastime, if nothing else. For what it’s worth, I hope you’re enjoying the ride with me.

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Wild peppermint, which I found down by my lake in Spring 2015.

L’shana tova tikatevu, chaverim. Hope it’s a sweet one.

 

*Ha! I slay me.

**Did it again. 😀

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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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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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