The second issue of Edible Westchester Magazine features a photograph I took of Chef Chris Vergara. He took me on a foraging walk through some public lands in Westchester County. We looked for ramps, wild onions, and mushrooms. While squatting in the bushes, to get this shot, I also kept my eyes open for ticks and poison ivy. I love photographing in nature, but I am a little bit obsessed with the pests and hazards.
And, here is a shot Chef Vergara took of me, from my perch behind a log.
When my brother, Ryan, walks through a forest, he carries a machete. He has spent a great deal of time in Brazil, and there are dangers in those forests greater than brambles. Here in Canada, on Hornby Island, my brother uses his machete to carve out trails through a second-growth forest that had been logged, farmed, and left fallow for decades. My brother is remaking this forest.
Bit by bit, he will make room amongst the standing trees for the new ones he has collected. He has a small fenced area he calls the nursery, and in it are 100 varieties of apple and nut saplings.
He emailed an apple tree catalog to our family in February asking for help narrowing down the choices. But in the end, he grafted one of each. They have names like Pendragon, which is a 12th century red-fleshed cider apple from Wales. There is Kandil Sinap, from Turkey circa 1880, with creamy, yellow porcelain-like skin and a cylindrical shape. The crab apple Wickson is said to be so prolific that the small yellow and red apples will garland a tree with fruit.
I grew up in the forests across the water from Hornby Island. I used to look out my bedroom window, through tall pines, across the Georgia Straight, past Denman Island and the Chrome Island Lighthouse, all the way to Hornby Island. It took two ferries to get there. When I fished with my grandfather, we would jig for cod around its perimeter.
My family has an anchor on Hornby Island now. We visited this July. “What do you want to see?” My brother and sister asked me. “Wild edibles,” I answered.
My brother grabbed his machete, and our small troupe followed him into the woods. We walked through grove after grove of salal. My sister and I picked a basket of the berries and I made a shrub, aka drinking vinegar. This acidified syrup is my summer theme. I have been drinking it in sparkling water. I also made a salad dressing with it, substituting a couple tablespoons of shrub for the sweetness and vinegar I might have added.
Salal berries are a highly localized plant, native to the part of the world where I grew up. I remember them, although I did not eat them. Their dark purple and plump berries are appealing looking, but eaten fresh they are bland and mealy. Heat and a little sweetness brings this fruit to life. I did not believe in tricks like that when I lived here.
I will wait for the apple and nut trees to mature. Plants grow fast in the west coast. I will be back, and often.
This July 4th we were invited to spend the weekend in a pre-Revolutionary house on the other side of the Hudson River. We picked snap peas and flowers at Hearty Roots Farm, blueberries at Grieg’s Farm, and we stumbled upon an undisturbed thicket of black raspberries.
We admired the historic details in the old mansion, known as the 1773 Calendar House. One night, our host filled two enormous brass candelabras with white tapers, poured wine, and told us tales of the Livingston family who used to own the home. We ate in the once-grand dining room, and imagined the time when the house served as a meeting place for Generals of the American Revolution.
As for the picking, I have heard about black raspberries (aka blackcaps) for years but, until now, I have never found or tried them. Not 10 minutes after seeing a beautiful image of them on the Instagram account of the Catskill Native Nursery, we stumbled upon a huge patch. The entire edge of the long and winding driveway at the Calendar House was bordered by bushes loaded with fruit. My friend and I picked the ripest ones, and we transformed them into fruit shrub, aka drinking vinegar.
A shrub is an acidified fruit syrup. Invented before refrigeration, shrubs were originally intended as a way to preserve fruit past the growing season. I have spent most of June making them… strawberry shrub from the ripest strawberries, blackberry-raspberry shrub, and black currant shrub using berries from my garden. The ingredients are berries, sugar, and vinegar. The ratio is approximately 1:1:1. A heated shrub takes about 15 minutes to make. A raw shrub takes about two days, but you don’t have to do anything to it but wait. Here is a page with great information and recipes for shrub making, Here is another one on Food52.
For a refreshing summer drink, I like to splash about a tablespoon into a glass of sparkling water and ice. Shrubs also blend deliciously with spirits for a stronger cocktail.
As for the rest of the weekend, there are so many other little stories to tell. Little stories of life, mirth, and silliness. The morning of July 4th we crossed the river again, and prepared a pizza party for family and friends. But that is another story. Brick pizza oven reveal to come in a following post.
Last year I bought two tiny elderberry bushes from the Catskill Native Nursery, and planted them in a bare patch in my garden. This year they are 10′ tall and loaded with elderflowers. Eventually, I would like to make elderberry syrup, which is a potent anti-viral. But, I have some traveling to do this summer, and it is is possible the precious elderberries will be gobbled by birds before I get to them this year. Still, I wanted to do something special with this amazing plant. So I made elderflower cordial.
Elderflower cordial is simple to make. It requires only the beautiful flower heads, water, sugar, optional citric acid, and the zest and juice of lemons. You can also add orange zest and juice, which I did, for the color. My batch combined two recipes. One is from the River Cottage, and another from Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook.
There is one funny thing about elderflowers. They are either a super-food or potentially toxic. Searching “health benefits of elderflowers” reveals that they contain bioflavonoids and are antioxidant, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial. Searching “are elderflowers toxic?” tells us the stems and leaves of the elderberry plant contain a cyanide-producing chemical. To put this in context, almonds also contain a cyanide-producing chemical. And we all know rhubarb leaves are toxic, while the juicy stems are delicious. To prepare elderflowers for infusion, you snip away all of the stems and branches. Problem solved.
Still, I tend to err on the side of caution, especially with something new. While I did serve the cordial at a recent cook-out, my cautionary words ensured I had only one unfazed sipper (besides myself). “Well” he said, “They sell it at Ikea.”
Cyanide and box stores aside, elderflower cordial is one of the most aromatic beverages I have ever made or consumed. It is delicate, and seasonal, and I like to think loaded with healthful properties.
This weekend I went on a foraging walk with Dina Falconi. She is the author of the beautiful book, Foraging & Feasting. The walk was a 2-hour introduction to the process of identifying plants. We learned about looking at the macrocosm (the environment) before looking at the microcosm (the plant). We learned about identifying characteristics, leaf and stem patterns, textures, size, and of course the flower. Dina showed us how to crush a leaf and smell it. She showed us how to carefully taste it, if we are not sure.
We spent most of our time with a few edible weeds we found growing at the perimeter of the Berkshire Botanic Garden… garlic mustard (which I was recently introduced to), Gill-over-the ground (eating this helps to draw out heavy metals from the body), and dandelions (the petals! I have to eat the yellow petals).
It was a wonderful morning. And I’m hungry for more.
I am learning to forage, and I am exploring garlic mustard greens. This green grows everywhere. I spot it on the roadside, along my driveway, and in disturbed areas of my garden. I used to pull and compost it as a weed, but this spring, I am pulling it and carrying it into my kitchen. So far, I have eaten it raw, as a pesto, and chopped up into soup. Word is, mustard greens are nutritious. They are also invasive. So, pulling them and eating them solves two problems.
Below, patches of wild mustard greens thrive on slopes around my yard. And my girl, helping to prepare this weed for the kitchen.
Wild thyme, which grows in patches around my yard, prepped for the soup.
An Italian-inspired soup of white beans, onion, garlic, carrot, celery, potato, wild thyme, orzo pasta, and wild mustard greens. The strong flavor of the greens mellows when simmered for a few minutes. They lose the bitterness that is strong when eaten raw.
For my Italian inspired white bean, pasta, and greens soup, I used a couple of sample bottles of a lovely olive oil grown and produced on an Italian villa, and sent to me by my friend who lives there.
Pesto made with roasted walnuts, wild mustard greens, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and parmesan. Full recipe by Ian Knauer, and more information about these greens, here.
I don’t know if I ever bit into a crunchy, salty sea bean when I lived on the shores of the Pacific. I certainly remember walking on them. I remember the crunch and pop of them underfoot.
This summer, while walking with my dad along a rocky beach, near where he lives in British Columbia, I asked him if he knew of any local, wild edibles. “Well, there is sea asparagus,” he said. He gestured down beneath his shoes. He hadn’t eaten it either, but his girlfriend, a poet and a kayaker, knew that if she ever found herself stranded and starving on the Pacific coast, she could eat them. It would be a mighty salty survival food, and my lips still pucker when I think of my first taste. They taste like a sea water reduction.
Chefs love them. And if they love them, there has to be something going on. I set to work harvesting a bowl full with my dad and daughter, and then I looked up recipes. We parboiled them, and flash fried them in butter, garlic and lemon. We did not salt them. I used them to garnish a beautiful wild Pacific salmon my husband cooked. The meal made so much sense, but they are still something of an acquired taste.
Then, because we had far more than we could eat as a garnish, I continued my research. Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook wrote of an experiment dehydrating them. Since my dad just happened to be driving around with a dehydrator in his truck, we gave it a whirl. I have yet to complete the final step in the mortar and pestle to make sea bean salt. I can’t quite imagine ever wanting so much ocean flavor in a dish.
I had one other sea bean experience this year. Days after I returned from the west coast, I found myself shooting a campaign for Neuman’s Kitchen, a high end catering company in NYC. They feed the corporate crowds, and they create extraordinary feasts for benefits. Chef Robb Garceau is a pleasure to work with, and for each of the photoshoots we have done, he visits the Greenmarket early in the morning for inspiration. Imagine my surprise, when one afternoon he suddenly appeared with an herb-salt encrusted Arctic char, a whole variety of beautiful shellfish preparations, and a bowl of pickled sea beans. I do think this is the best way to go. The salt, crunch, and pop of them is just meant to blend with vinegar, and is why sea beans are also known as pickleweed.
As for the dehydrated sea beans in a little baggie on my desk, they await grinding. I keep wondering what to do with the salt once I make it. Could I rim a glass in sea bean dust for an updated version of a Caesar (a classic Canadian cocktail made with clam juice)? How about sea bean salted wine for steamed clams? A dusting on white fish? And then I take a nibble of the now dry (but still very salty) sticks, and I’m right back on the shores of Hornby Island, picking them with my dad.
Ever since reading Foraging & Feasting, I have been looking forward to making wild grape leaf dolmades. This afternoon, on our way to pick up our toddler, I spotted wild grape vines draping along the side of a quiet road. We snipped a few branches and brought them home. I blanched the leaves in water, salt & vinegar, then made the filling. They were deceptively easy to make, and next time I go to a vegan party, I very well make this version. Although before then, I will likely experiment with a ground meat filled variety.
Olive oil; 1 medium onion finely chopped; 1/2 cup rice; 1/4 cup pine nuts; 1/4 cup currants; 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon; 1 bay leaf; 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, mint, dill; fresh wild grape leaves, blanched; 1/4 cup lemon juice.
Saute onion until fragrant. Add rice and pine nuts, stir. Add currants, cinnamon, bay leaf, and 1 cup water. Simmer 15 minutes, covered. Rice should be mostly cooked but still firm. Stir in herbs, salt & pepper. Line a pan with blanched grape leaves. Fill remaining grape leaves with heaping teaspoon of rice & herb filling, fold up sides and roll into a tight bundle. Set each rolled dolmade in the pan, and fit tightly together. Set a heat-proof dish on top of the dolmades, add lemon juice & 1 cup water. Simmer 45 minutes. Remove from heat, and let stand until liquid is absorbed. Best eaten at room temperature.
My edible garden is accidentally on purpose filled with wood sorrel. This south facing slope at the forest’s edge is a hodge-podge of garden theories. I follow Lee Reich’s method of mulching to suppress weeds. But I also follow the Gaia’s Garden approach of letting things grow in organized chaos. And since I haven’t found a great source for organic compost, I don’t mulch as often as I ought. In some ways this garden is weeds suppressing other weeds. But I curate the weeds.
Barberries I attack with a crowbar. Wisteria is clipped or pulled on sight. Periwinkles run rampant and the bees appreciate their early flowers. Clover is a boon for its nitrogen-fixing root nodules in the soil.
My toddler and her Nana love to nibble on wood sorrel, so it stays. Its delicate heart-shaped leaves bend and nod in every corner of the garden. It looks a lot like clover, but wood sorrel is a sour, lemony tasting green that doubles as a potent culinary herb.
Clipping the plants from where they were growing too closely to pear trees the other day, I gathered it for the kitchen, rather than the compost. I turned to Foraging & Feasting, a beautifully illustrated book about wild edibles, and made sure there are no poisonous look-alikes. (There are not.) Then I looked for recipes in my cookbooks.
There are many recipes for sorrel cream sauce, sorrel and goat cheese tarts, and sorrel beverages. Apparently – although I have not tested this – cultivated sorrel and wood sorrel are so similar in flavor as to be interchangeable. I will do a taste-test when I get my hands on some farmed sorrel this summer. The delicate leaves of wild sorrel seem to me best suited to salads.
This weekend, I made wood sorrel salad, and I made a version of Ottolenghi’s lima beans with sorrel, feta and lemon.
For the salad: torn leaves of fresh young lettuce (I used red leaf), fresh dill, a big bunch of wood sorrel leaves & flowers, and since they were blooming, chive flowers.
For the dressing: olive oil, aged white balsamic vinegar, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, a teaspoon of fig preserves, a teaspoon of stone ground mustard, one pressed clove of garlic, a wee bit of diced red onion, salt.
Garnish: Toasted sunflower seeds and grated aged parmesan.
This was delicious. We ate the sour & sweet salad for lunch with some of the sorrel & lima bean dish I had left over from the day before. I made sure my husband got the single sorrel flower I harvested, and my daughter talked about that flower all through lunch.
Reporter Indrani Sen and I followed ramp foragers deep into the Catskill mountains, to write and photograph a story for the New York Times’s Dining section. Standing in the forest, surrounded by acres of the pungent wild greens, I did wonder if I was seeing something that would be legendary a generation from now. Read Indrani’s thought-provoking article on the danger of over-foraging to feed a populace with a growing passion for wild, local foods, and here are some of my outtakes from the shoot. If you have land of your own, consider planting your own ramps. Seed & bulbs available here.