Field Notes: Seeing Green

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Spring looks best in the rain. I get obsessive this time of year, wanting to cover all the ground I can, and there’s no finer time than right after a good soaking rain. The green stands out against the dark grays and browns of the tree trunks, almost glowing. The grass is brilliant with a multitude of varying shades of green with blue and yellow undertones. Did you know that the human eye differentiates more shades of green than in any other color? Lately I’ve been tramping around in wetlands looking for the delicacies of spring, ramps and morels, and I love how my eye gets attuned to the differences between say, skunk cabbage and wild hellebore. Skunk cabbage definitely has that almost radioactive chartreuse thing going on, to warn us of its toxicity? Wild hellebore is also toxic though, and its color doesn’t seem as much a warning. Its leaves are like inviting plumage, big feathery leaves rising up out of one another.

Ramps like to grow near moving water, I find—a small stream or brook—close to the skunk cabbage, trout lilies and wild hellebore, but not quite as appreciative of the truly wetter murk. As I search those areas, I keep tabs on the trees that like to be near those wetter areas, like elms and ashes. The more I read the more I feel like the place to look for morels is about the soil and not necessarily the trees. That doesn’t mean I’m finding any more of them, though. I think looking for them is a little crazy-making, and I’m usually glad to give up the search when the time is over.

In the meantime, I try not to obsess too much, and instead enjoy the rambles I am on. Keeping my eyes out for any new growth, like the mullein and its soft fuzzy leaves, or a large wood frog stone still on a rock. Mostly my eyes are trained on the ground, but I try to remember to look up, perhaps I’ll notice the flowering of a tree that might hold the promise of fruit later in the summer. It’s sort of just like life: try not to obsess on the goal, enjoy the journey, don’t forget to look around. Isn’t that what everyone tells you? It’s reliably easier said than done.

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Warm Fennel Salad

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In spring, we are done with heavy stews and rich winter foods, but the new crops are not yet in. It’s that straddle time for food, clothes and bedding: is it too heavy? Too light? Usually a time of fasting, the spring is a good time to look for sprightly foraged plants that are a tonic for reviving the spirit. Green things are just coming into play again, garlic mustard, some ramps, asparagus. But these are just tastes of green, and my larder is quite bare, so I must still rely on the supermarket. Lately, I’ve been having a ravenous need for greens, and so have been buying big bunches of them–spinach, mustard greens, dandelions, chard. I cook them off with some stock and lemon juice to have on hand for various meals. But I also have a desire for crunch. Cabbage, celery and fennel to the rescue.

I love fennel, but I don’t buy it too often because at the supermarket they often look drab and tired. I know they probably sit around for a while before someone like me buys them. That said, it’s easy to spruce up a tired fennel bulb from the supermarket if you are   really have a hankering for that crunchy licorice-y taste. A little bit goes a long way. I love it raw, thinly sliced with just some olive oil, salt and lemon juice. Mixed with red cabbage, also thinly sliced, makes a delightful slaw with the addition of some chopped parsley. And if you happen to see some blood oranges, that is also a nice pairing. While the crunch is desired, it can be tough for your system, so sometimes I like to do a quick sauté to soften a vegetable but retain it’s crunch. An al dente vegetable, you might say. This salad was perfect: the gently warmed fennel mellows the licorice flavor of the fennel, and there is a richness that makes this worthy of main meal.

Warm Fennel Salad

Yields enough for 2 or 3 people, depending on whether it’s a side or main

1 fennel bulb, trimmed of the tops and shave off the end side, and any truly tired pieces. Stand the bulb up and cut in half, then putting the cut side down, very thinly slice. Lightly heat some olive oil, and add the fennel, sautéing it gently. Salt to taste. Remove the fennel from the pan before it cooks too much–a few minutes should be fine.

To serve: arrange blood orange sections, or orange sections, peeled and quartered, on top. Also, roughly chopped flat leaf parsley, shaved parmesan cheese, fresh cracked pepper.

Field Notes: Mid-April

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The skunk cabbage declares spring!

When spring begins, I don’t want to be anywhere else but home. Recently I’ve been traveling—little trips, nothing exotic, mostly to more urban places: Atlanta, Philadelphia, NYC, Long Island—and each time I leave I can’t wait to get back, and I worry I will miss something. How is it that each spring is still so exciting, even when we know exactly what will happen? Maybe because it is that amazing! Everything that has died returns, and starts anew. What could be more magical than that? Don’t we wish we had that amazing capability as well?

Although the trails are caked with layers of last year’s dry leaves, there are juicy bits of green that catch your eye immediately. Around Louisa Pond there are clumps of swamp grass that line the edges of the water. They are a spray of old straw with a heart of light green coming out of the center. By the river there is a canopy of tulip poplars, maples and oaks that towers over a forest of spicebushes, and as the spicebushes bud they turn into an amazing chartreuse haze that I always look forward to. The buds are like tiny pom poms. The red haze of the maple buds are filled with promise. I anticipate all of these details. Knowing where to look and what to look for actually makes it more exciting.

The trout lilies are blooming—with their spotted leaves and bright yellow flowers—along with  violets, dandelions, coltsfoot, muscaria, scilla siberica, hepatica, and forsythia, to name a few. I saw a large bumblebee struggling to find a flower, skittering around, wings still not strong enough to lift its large fuzzy body until it crawled upon a purple dead nettle and found a flower to drink from. The purple dead nettles are happy in the edges of the garden, and I leave them for this reason: to feed the bees. The bittercress are also multiplying amongst the strawberries, their delicate white florets in a rosette of green leaves. The sheep’s sorrel also remains, it’s roots resilient and unstoppable, though I’ve managed to hustle them mostly out of the garden. In the swampy wetlands the bright green trumpet of the skunk cabbage pushes up everywhere. Even though soft and tender and green, all of these plants force themselves up through layers of dead leaves and tossed gravel. Their strength amazes me.

If you look closely at the soil it begins to move with bugs: little pill bugs crawl everywhere, ants move soil, and below that worms dig tunnels. In the air the mayflies have begun their incessant and irritating ritual of hovering around your head and dive-bombing your eyes and nose as you work or walk. We know they will die in two weeks, but still they cause us to wave constantly at imaginary friends, making one look crazy to the distant observer.

Movement is everywhere! I have seen four snakes already, and that is a true sign of warming temperatures. A lithe garden snake on a path, a large black rat snake sunning in leaves by a stream, and two water snakes. One of which, fatly coiled in a figure eight, was sitting in a trail that was streaming over with water. We carefully circumnavigated it. The last water snake lives by our pond and always slithers away before we can see it. Turtles have been sunning on the edges of the pond, also quick as a bullet into the water when we approach, but you can spot their shiny shells from a distance. The fish are also there, forming ripples when they see you, swimming away into the deep.

Jostaberry Pâte

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Isn’t funny how we, as humans, gravitate to certain things? Why do we have different likes and dislikes? I’ve always loved to cook, and it started when I was very young. Staring into a pot, stirring with a wooden spoon, or leaning over a cutting board: these are all very natural poses for me. When I am in these poses, it’s like I’ve settled into myself, at center. Even within the huge realm of cooking, there are some things that I like more than others. This is so with the broad category of cooking fruit. Fruit, I feel, is truly a blessing, and if you have ever tried to grown your own fruit, you will know this intrinsically. This is probably stating the obvious, but I especially love making fruit preserves. Something about how they change from thin and watery to gorgeous glossy thickness is, I think, what fascinates me so. I also think it’s such an easy and attainable richness for the every day person. To have jars filled with different fruit mixtures lining my kitchen shelves seems such a luxury!

The essence of making sweet preserves is simply to mix fruit and sugar, plus a touch of acid, depending on the fruit, and then to apply heat. If you can boil water, then surely you can boil fruit. Even if it’s not in line with your natural inclinations, it’s still worthwhile to invest some time in. I recall doing a jam demonstration at a farmer’s market a few years back, trying to convince people walking by to make their own jam. I was making a black current jam and giving out tastes of this complex and mysterious preserve. People loved it and would promptly ask to buy a jar. I wasn’t selling it, I told them, just teaching you how to make it. And they, just as quickly, would say they could never do that. I just want to buy it, one woman said. I think despite the recent trend to DIYism, there is still a huge part of the population who just wants to buy things. I do believe that at this point in time, it is urgent to continue to take back our ability to do these things. This self-reliance is more important than ever, to take the things that make us human back from large corporations, who remove the mystery and intuition from making our own.

That said, I will leave you with a short recipe for a fruit pâte, also referred to as a paste or cheese, that I was so excited to make. Not quite as easy as a jam, and something only a few fruits will do on their own without adding pectin, like quinces or Damson plums, for example. Will anyone ever make this oddball recipe? I don’t know, as its main ingredient is jostaberries, a hybrid of two different gooseberry strains crossed with a black currant. You don’t see them that often, unless you grow them.The thing that makes this a stiff, cut-able “cheese” is the pectin content of this particular fruit, which comes in large part from its gooseberry parents. The subtle taste of the black currant is what makes it taste so spectacular.  I guess you could make this with a blend of 2/3 gooseberries mixed with 1/3 black currants. I am still trying to figure out what cheese this would most go with, but I am banking on a complex and creamy cheese, like local favorite Kunik, from Nettle Meadow Farm.

Jostaberry Fruit Pâte

2 pounds jostaberries

2 cups water

1 cup of sugar

Simmer the berries in the water until softened, about 10 to 15 minutes. Let it cool a bit, then push the mixture through a fine sieve which will yield about 2 cups of a thick puree. Put the puree in a large wide pot, add the sugar, and bring to a bubble. Cook at this temperature stirring constantly. It will take about twenty minutes to reach the desired consistency. As you constantly stir making sure the mixture doesn’t scorch, you will start to note a brown tinge at the very edges of the puree as you drag your spatula through. The sugar is starting to caramelize, and the water of the mixture is almost completely boiled out. It is ready when your spatula makes a path in the puree that lasts a whole twenty to thirty seconds. Push it to the edge of this without letting it burn. Remove from heat, and pour the fruit puree into a glass container that has been lightly greased with vegetable oil. A small rectangle is good—that way you can cut it into bite sized pieces. Or, use small four-ounce containers, which make a nice shape for a cheese plate. Once removed from the cup they can still be a bit sticky, so invert them and dry them in a dehydrator for about 8 hours.

You can cut and dredge the pieces in sugar, but I like the taste—which has a cranberry-like tartness—to stay true, and sugared pieces won’t work on a cheese plate, which is where I think a fruit preparation like this belongs. Eight year olds might beg to differ.

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Field Notes: Early April

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I saw the first crocus out front! And also some ramps I planted last year poking out, so happy in their new spot! Forsythia buds are waiting to burst, and the weather reports say we’ll hit 70 degrees on Tuesday. I predict an explosion into spring. The garden beds are all raked of leaves and many seeds have been sown. Birds sing expectantly, urgently almost, and it does seem like winter is truly gone. However, the weather has been unsettled, and the rain has been torrential, epic even. We seem to be having a pattern of a good day followed by a few of rain, which is great for the garden as long as the seeds don’t float away. I’ve planted lettuces, spinach, kale, carrots, radishes and peas. I also transplanted five Reliance grape vines that I’ve been meaning to move for years. Things are looking tight.

On Monday, I put my overalls on, and sat down in the dirt with my small hand rake (does it have a proper name?) and began clawing the ground. It is one of the best moments of spring; it’s like a huge sigh of relief and a wave of joy at once. The soil is dark and crumbly, filled with healthy fat worms, miles away from the thick clay that was there when I started this particular garden over ten years ago. It’s amazing how much you learn and how long it takes to learn. Patience is a virtue indeed. For years I have been amending that soil: with my own compost, yards of purchased compost, rotating crops, cover crops. I feel like I’ve pulled thousands of rocks from that wet dense soil. At times it seemed an exercise in futility.

When I boiled down three different batches of maple sap recently, I was rewarded with a about a pint of syrup each time. As I stood there checking on the evaporating liquid, I thought how absurd it was. I was just boiling off five gallons of liquid. Standing around for hours watching that boiling sap turn into vapor. It all felt very pointless, especially that first time, until I got to the end when I poured a thick liquid through a fine sieve, finally harvesting that pint of golden liquid. All it took was time, maybe some perversity, and a willingness to believe. You never think it’s worth it until the very end, when you have that crumbly black soil in your hand, or that pint jar of golden goodness on your shelf.

And so too, we endure the winter, even though the snow may seem pointless. Maybe that’s why we explode with joy every year when spring comes around. The payoff feels so sweet. How thrilled I was to find a small delicate hepatica, an early spring flower, blooming the other day aside the raging Black Creek! And to find a green ramp furled like a tightly rolled sail, or the jostaberry bushes studded with fat leaf buds, shimmering in green and gold, about to burst. I looked back on my photos from last spring, and there were the same exact images, the ramps, the leaf buds, the hepatica, though last year’s was purple and this year’s white. Yet the joy is the same! The waiting indeed is the hardest part, but the reward is always worthwhile.

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Date Coconut Muffins

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I’ve been traveling around a bit, which is always a shock to my system. As you can guess, I’m a rather homey sort, so when I’m on the road it throws my reliable patterns off. I find that getting right back into my routine is the best thing for me, so this morning I made a batch of my puffed grain granola and baked up these muffins. Muffins, I always say, have gotten an unfairly bad rap. Sad factory muffins are everywhere, and I’m quite sure they are not good for you at all. Homemade muffins, however, are a snap to make, and they can be a real source of comfort and nourishment. Sure, they are little cakes, but when they’re jacked up with coconut and dates they are a treat that you can be proud of.

Date Coconut Muffins

Preheat oven to 350. Makes 12 standard size muffins. Have a greased muffin tin ready.

1 cup all purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup shredded unsweetened coconut

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup deglet dates (or whatever kind), chopped (to make date puree, prepared with 1 cup of water and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda according to notes in recipe)

1/4 cup coconut oil, liquid form

2 small eggs

Mix flours, sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and coconut in a bowl. Make date purée: heat water, chopped dates and baking soda and cook at a simmer until dates are soft. (Apparently, the baking soda is to further the softening of the dates.) The mixture will foam up, so keep an eye on it. Purée the mixture until somewhat smooth. Let it cool. Whisk buttermilk, eggs and liquid coconut oil together. You may substitute vegetable oil but the flavor is better with coconut. Make sure to heat the coconut oil gently if it’s still solid. Stir this into the dry mixture. Then add the date purée. Incorporate thoroughly but don’t over beat. Pour into a standard 12-cup muffin tin that is well greased. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Let sit in pan for about five minutes, then remove to cool on a rack.

Field Notes: End of March

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Alder catkins and their new tiny red cones.

Yesterday was bright and sunny after four days of rain, and it felt blissful. It’s raining again today, and though dreary, it’s still welcome. Any drought or warning of such has been downgraded, and we are at normal levels of water after an almost year-long dry spell. However, does that mean normal for this time? I went to see some waterfalls the other day, and they were running well but nothing out of the ordinary. In the past, I have been blown away by the sheer force and amount of water raging through our waterways this time of year. But still water is everywhere, thank goodness for that. I’m already thinking about this season’s mushrooms, as last year was bereft of them.

Spring soldiers forth. In the woods, by the melting vernal pools, the wood frogs and peepers are out. I hear the wood frogs from a distance, sounding like a flock of hens quietly clucking in the swamp. When I reach them they are suddenly quiet; when I walk away they begin again. Snow is still melting off, it’s wet and slushy and holds old footprints, feathering at the edges, soon to disappear. Water is everywhere, rushing through the rocks. Ducks, Buffleheads perhaps, screech and fly away as soon as they hear me venture anywhere near them.

Along the river, a juvenile eagle soars, which is always thrilling. If you’ve seen bald eagles then you understand: they truly are majestic. They are extremely large, so much so that you immediately know you are seeing an eagle, and not, say, a vulture. We are lucky enough to see these creatures along the Hudson River now that they have made a healthy return from the brink of extinction. Bald eagles are easily recognized in their adult plumage as the white head is very striking. The juvenile is dark-headed, and has a mottled breast, and not quite as immediately noticeable but for its size. I must have startled this bird from seeking out a deer carcass we passed earlier that was being torn apart by a wake of vultures. Eagles are fish hunters, but they don’t pass up the opportunity of scavenging.

As I walk watching the land wake up, I’ve been asking myself what truly matters? As I ponder this, I conversely ask what doesn’t matter? Does mattering matter? Some things don’t need to matter because they just are. Being is important enough for the wood frogs and the peepers, eagles and vultures. So: what does matter? I find my mind starts to obsess about the things I should be doing, or attaining, but when I stop to observe my surroundings, I realize that the things that I thought were so important really aren’t. And that those things we all know to really matter: our health, our loves, our integrity, are easily enough tended to if we let them just be.

Random notes:

I often walk on local naturalist John Burroughs’ old homestead and land, Slabsides. I just finished Burroughs’ first book, Wake-Robin. Our library has a large collection of his work and books on his life and the history of the area. They are having a series of talks on American naturalists this month, and on April 21st the topic will be Burroughs and his life.

This week I read Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami. It was perfect quick read, and in essence was about asking who we are, as individuals, and what matters.

Apparently, what’s important is also in the stars. Isn’t it always?

Staying Hungry

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