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Posts Tagged ‘wild’

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I love game — venison and the like — but I have zero clue where my affinity for it comes from. My family was into watching MTV or sitting on the flagstone patio eating Carvel ice cream while my dad puffed on a pricey cigar. We were not and are not sportsmen. Living a mile from the Atlantic, we were more inclined to have our bare feet in the sand, not in camo boots and sitting in a deer blind*.

The craziest thing I used to eat at as a grade-schooler was snails. Escargot. I genuinely have no idea what compelled me to order them at a restaurant; I wasn’t exactly an adventurous kid. But I adored them.

My mom couldn’t stomach the thought of game. Just the mention of it made her turn a delicate shade of chartreuse. Once I ordered pheasant at a French restaurant and she practically retched right there on the 400-thread-count white tablecloth. I’m not ashamed to say that was part of the fun of ordering pheasant in the first place. And it was pretty tasty to boot.

Since then I’ve had alligator sausage in Florida, moose and elk burgers in Colorado and most recently, venison here in the great state of New Jersey. Loved it all. The gamier, the better. My cousin’s husband is a fervent hunter and fisherman, and we barter deer meat and striped bass for baked goods.

Again, I really need to emphasize that most people here don’t go looking for their food anywhere that doesn’t feature rewards cards. Many wouldn’t even venture to a farm — and this is the Garden State, no less. When I told my friend Brian that I buy eggs at a farm, he reminded me that Wegmans sells eggs, too.

I recently came into an old edition of Joy of Cooking that includes recipes and directions for large and small game. (The copyright page is missing; the publishing date is unknown. But in true Don-Draper fashion, the book’s first chapter is Drinks and it unironically offers several recipes for canapes, so it’s likely mid-century**.) And there are six pages devoted to game. They feature rabbit and deer along with opossum, muskrat, boar’s head, woodchuck, porcupine, beaver, raccoon, peccary — which, as everyone knows, is also called a javelina or skunk pig — and bear. There is also a page and a half devoted to airy and casual discussion of eviscerating the above, as if it’s something you’d mosey out to the woods and do before Don Draper’s cocktail party at six.

Never have I done this; never have I even seen this done. I was so unnerved at the thought of dissecting my fetal pig in Bio 101 that my college prof did it herself. But I am transfixed reading these directions.

Every piece of meat we omnivores eat comes from the big-box store’s refrigerator, wrapped in Styro and celluloid. Where is it from? Under what conditions was the animal killed and processed? We don’t know; we don’t want to know. We pluck chicken thighs from the fridge bin as dispassionately as we choose paper towels or shampoo. We cook and eat it the same way. From a connection standpoint, it couldn’t be farther from the source if was FedExed from Jupiter’s 37th moon.

Maybe explaining how to process and prepare an animal as something you and I can do, something people have always — directly — done, feels like reconnecting ourselves with our food.

Maybe — and I know I’m going into fraught territory here, but I’ve come this far — processing and preparing meat ourselves is the most honorable way to eat meat.

I came by this venison secondhand. But I can tell you eating it feels profound, even with that one degree of separation. I am reminded with every bite of its provenance. It feels right and proper. The gap closes.

As far as the pot pie recipe goes … there isn’t one. I winged it. To the farm carrots I froze last September I added potatoes and red onion. Found some wild chives on a walk to the lake and tossed in some dried wild purslane, also squirreled away from last summer. Browned the meat partway. Made a thick gravy with chicken broth, Worcestershire, malt vinegar, and hot pepper flakes. I loaded up my mom’s little 1970s earthenware pots, topped them with my pie dough, and baked them for half an hour. She’s nauseated, looking down. But I had a great, and grateful, lunch.

*Just Googled ‘hunting hideout.’ Do you sit in a deer blind or behind one? Are camo boots even a thing? I know my hunting prowess is shining right through. I’m practically Artemis.

**It’s apparently also a book that Point Pleasant Borough High School librarians have been missing for 24 years. I won’t name the perp, but I will say his homeroom was Room 207. Doing you a favor, Mr. 207. Shirley Jones’s Marian would have been all over Robert Preston’s case.

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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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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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