Archive for April, 2008

First Asparagus of the Season

I went to the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket this morning, and almost did a jig when I spotted the first asparagus of the season. Yippee!

Glee and excitement over each new crop of the year are a perk of eating a seasonal diet (and locally grown automatically means seasonal, unless it’s greenhouse grown, but more about that in a second). For me, this is especially true for the spring treats that are only around for a few weeks.

I think “seasonal” should be right up there with “local” and “organic” in our food priorities that impact both environment and taste buds. Even if you are eating the fruits of industrial agriculture, you’re better off knowing what’s in season in your area when. Here’s why: although in-season doesn’t guarantee local (I saw New Zealand apples in New York last autumn), out-of-season does guarantee an increase in fuel burned to bring it to your plate. Out-of-season food has either been shipped long distance from somewhere it is in season (more fuel-burning miles), or greenhouse-grown (heating greenhouses uses fuel), or stored in refrigerated facilities (more fuel).

Anyway, after I refrained (barely) from doing a jig over the asparagus, I spotted another seasonal treat a few stalls down: ramps (also called wild leeks, a.k.a. Allium tricoccum).

What I really wanted to do was go straight home and start cooking, but I had an afternoon class to teach at the New York Botanical Garden. So I dropped off my asparagus and ramps at home and headed for the subway.

I got to the Garden with some time to spare and headed for what I think of as “the back 40,” the uncultivated, ignored areas at the outskirts of the garden. There are always interesting wild plants there. Today I spotted a patch of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) that I’ll definitely check on later in the season to see if they are bearing fruit. Then I found a swathe of nettles (Urtica dioica) that are delicious as a cooked green or mashed up with potatoes and buttermilk. I collected a bagful. After that I gathered some redbud (Cercis canadensis)

flowers, which taste a little like green beans and are great raw on salads. That was all the foraging I had time for before I had to teach my class.

On the way back to the subway I saw a woman creating a vegetable garden in her apartment building’s small front yard. She had onions and lettuce already growing, and had just transplanted her bell pepper seedlings. Because the nights are still a little too cold for peppers, she was rigging ingenious individual cold frames for the plants using sticks and plastic bags.

And now I’m back home and thinking about dinner. I think I’ll do the asparagus the way I had it in Switzerland last spring: steamed, then slathered with melted butter and sprinkled with shavings of cheese, except that instead of Parmesan I’ll be using Sprout Creek Farm’s spectacularly good Barat cheese. The ramps will get sauteed and then layered with scalloped potatoes, and…

Excuse me. My mouth is watering as I write this and I have to go cook now.

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Foraging Day

Today I met Ellen in Central Park for our annual Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) foraging foray. It is always a bit of a gamble. Last year, according to my notes, we met this same week and the plants were barely at harvesting size. Today they were three feet tall, heading to their tough, inedible stage. Nonetheless, we both got a sackful. She’ll be brewing hers into wine and I’ll be freezing mine for use in soups, pies, and sauces. Japanese knotweed tastes something like rhubarb, tart and adaptable to both sweet and savory recipes.

There were unexpected harvests today as well. Ellen spotted some Elm samaras. elm samarasThese are a new wild food for me, tasting something like peas. I wish we’d collected more, but we weren’t 100% sure of our ID until we could get home and check our field guides (forager’s rule: If in doubt, throw it out). I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of these in the next week. During their brief, two week season they’re good both raw in salads and cooked.

So you’re thinking, wow, she’s got time to wander in the parks. Not really. Most of my foraging gets done striding at speed across town between garden clients whose terraces and lobby gardens I keep pretty. That’s my day job. But instead of cabbing it between East and West side, I walk. And along the way I forage.

That said, I have to admit that most of my foraging actually consists of weeding in my garden. Many of the “weeds” are delicious edibles. Tonight I picked nettles, one of my favorite wild greens.

nettles

I dry some of it for infusions later in the year. Some I use fresh. The Scotts adore this plant, and it is a featured ingredient in many of their recipes. I like it paired with potatoes in soups or a mash. By the way, the infamous stings disappear with cooking or drying.

I’ve stopped foraging for field garlic even though it is still in season. Ellen and Nancy, my meat farmer, gave me some of their surplus garlic, so I’m well-stocked to get through till the new garlic harvest here in July.

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In the Garden

The only edibles in my garden right now are herbs, violets (leaves and flowers are great in salads), garlic (planted last fall and should put out edible scapes in a month or so), field garlic, and a small patch of baby arugala. But we’re far enough into spring that it at least looks like a garden, and I enjoyed spending the morning doing some weeding and clean up. This was the view as I headed out my back door:

walking out my back door

And here is my morning cup of exemption coffee getting cold while I run around with the camera:

Note the compost bin in the back corner–one of my tasks this morning was spreading compost around the soon-to-be veggie beds.

For fruit, my garden has strawberry plants, two huge elderberries that have yet to set fruit (maybe this year), a red currant that offers up at least a pint of jewel-like fruit each spring. I also have an Elaeagnus (autumn olive a.k.a. silverberry) that is loaded with flowers for the first time in the three years I’ve grown it. Hopefully that means lots of fruit from it this fall. And I have a juneberry, a.k.a. Amelanchier, that Ellen gave me. It has fruits that look something like blueberries but have a delicious taste all their own. It fruited heavily for me last year, and right now it is in full bloom and definitely the star of the garden.

GT was very pleased to be let outside.

But now I need to come back inside and get busy washing up the greens I brought back from the farmers’ market for tonight’s salad.

If you’re thinking about trying to grow a few edibles yourself, and you live in NYC, stop by the National Gardening Association’s NYC Grows event at Union Square on Sunday, April 27th. I’ll be doing a container veg-and-herb gardening demo from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

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I Made It Through the Winter

What I bought at the farmers’ market yesterday: broccoli rabe, mixed baby salad greens, spinach, scallions. Notice a few things conspicuous by their absence? That’s right, I was no longer limited to root vegetables, cabbage, kale, and storage onions. Yay! The growing season has begun.

Some indigenous signs of spring are also popping up in my garden: mayapple mayappleand wild ginger, the spicebush leafing out, my juneberry showing a bountiful number of buds, juneberryblossomwhich, if all goes well, means a lot of juneberries in my near future.

The garlic mustard is already about to blossom, which means the leaves are about to turn bitter. But that’s okay, because now I have other salad greens like spinach and arugala. I picked a final bunch of garlic mustard to go into tonight’s salad, along with some dandelion. The dandelions, too, are starting to bloom and the leaves turn bitter, so it’s farewell to those particular wildling salads for now.

If you poked around in the crisper bins of my refrigerator, you’d see a lot of leafy greens. That’s spring. Now is not the time for red peppers or purple eggplants. It’s the time for green, and I, maybe more than most, am happy to see the green time arrive.

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Kale Again: Is It Really Spring?

I taught an herb gardening class at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden this morning. I walked home from BBG, and on the way enjoyed the magnolias putting on their show.

magnolia walk at bbg

A few blocks past BBG on my way home is the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. It was bustling today. The weather felt like spring. The plant sellers had returned with the flashy purples and yellows of spring flowers giving the market a festive appearance. Jackets were open and there were even a few bare toes in view. It was busier than it’s been since last fall.

brooklyn farmers’ market in April

But there was much less food for sale. Animal products were well represented, and I picked up some fish, eggs, and sausage. But Phillips Farm from New Jersey, my lifeline for produce this past winter, had reduced their offerings to one small table of root vegetables and another of rather sad looking Brassicaceae. I bought some kale, since I used up the last of my frozen greens last week.

Another vendor was selling apples (more apples!) and cider. In other words, the same stuff I’ve been eating for months. Actually, less variety. In February I could still count on Phillips for fresh spinach, leeks, and scallions.

So while the casual visitor might have thought today’s farmers’ market was busier and more colorful, I was painfully aware that there were no new spring offerings of the edible kind, and that the pickings were getting mighty slim.

Not to worry, I won’t starve. There’s still plenty in my pantry. But I am so ready for a fresh salad. Well, I did have the option to shell out $9 for a 1/4 pound of baby salad greens, or a similar fortune for the pallid hothouse tomatoes that were on offer today. Not.

There are the wildlings in my garden to fall back on: chickweed, dandelion, garlic mustard. They make a fine salad. But I confess that I am looking forward to a few leaves of lettuce.

Having whined about the dearth of early spring fare at the market, let me now say that I really don’t mind. You may think you enjoy a salad, but baby, I am really going to enjoy a salad a week or two from now. And when the first fruit (that isn’t an apple, or a dried fruit, or a canned one) shows up in my kitchen I think I’ll throw a party. It will likely be strawberries in June. A strawberry party. That could be fun! In an interesting way, the wattage on my food pleasure has gone way up because I can’t have everything all the time.

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Reconsidering My Olive Oil Exemption

After I wrote my last post, An Impossible Mango, I got uncomfortable. In case you missed it, it was a rant about how traditional foods can only travel to climates that match the circumstances they evolved in. But who am I to tell someone from the tropics that they shouldn’t eat mangoes when I, a Greek-American, granted myself an olive oil exemption?

I’m keeping my olive oil exemption, but I’ve modified it. It is to be used only when I’ll notice its flavor and appreciate it for the exotic ingredient it is (since I live in New York). Salad dressings, for instance, or pesto, or my grandmother’s recipe for skordalia. But I will not treat it as an everyday cooking lipid anymore.

Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any sources of local vegetable oils. In theory our climate could produce walnut and sunflower oils, but nobody seems to be doing it.

Okay, so what’ve I got? Local butter, schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), duck fat, saved bacon drippings, leaf lard. On a flavor level there really isn’t a problem (if you’ve never had potatoes sauteed with duck fat you haven’t lived–my humble opinion). Is there a health issue? Sally Fallon and the Weston Price Foundation put forth convincing reasons why animal fats are not evil.

And of course, there are plenty of cooking methods that rely on water or dry heat rather than cooking in oil. (Yikes, am I about to be on a diet?)

I’ll keep you updated on my progress. But what I really want to say is something about how I believe exotic imports (including olive oil) can fit into our daily lives.

Not that long ago it was a big deal to get an orange in your Christmas stocking (if your family celebrates Christmas). Oranges come from trees that can only survive mild winters. To get one in winter as a gift if you lived where winters got really cold was a big deal. In my opinion, there was nothing wrong with indulging in that orange.

What is wrong is to live in a cold-winter climate and treat oranges as if they are something we are entitled to every day, because the environmental cost is unsustainable. But that doesn’t mean I should never again eat an orange (after The 250, of course). It means I should appreciate it as a remarkable, occasional treat that has been brought to me from a totally different climate thousands of miles away.

Which brings me back to olive oil. Olive trees can’t grow where I live. The winters are too harsh. I love olive oil, and have cultural ties to it through my Greek relatives. So okay, I gave myself an olive oil exemption in my local eating rules. I’ve been cooking with it almost every day. That’s disrespectful of the exotic import status of my olive oil. Better to save it for recipes in which it is truly noticeable and essential.

On a different note, today I signed my CSA contract for the year. Shares won’t start being distributed until June, but I still got excited about the growing season ahead. Fingers crossed and prayers said for my farmers. May this be a bumper crop season.

GT sitting on my CSA contract and delaying getting it to a mailbox:

gt delays mailing my csa contract

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