Monday, June 17, 2013

First annual Serviceberry Fesitval! (and What We Ate)

What I believe to be Brooklyn's first-ever Serviceberry Festival is a multi-day 'event.'  Sort of the opposite of a moveable feast, it all happens right here, with a rolling cast of characters.  We have a young neighbor, Felix (yes, another serviceberry-loving Felix!), who helped on his side of the fence with some serious harvesting and eating.  (I wish someone could lift me up into the branches I can't quite reach!)

Marielle comes this week - we'll co-invent a new version of Pink Drink, eat Something Serviceberry with her boys (at least one something!), and harvest some low-lying fruit.  I'll bring sorbet to the nursery, for our special-magic Thursday late evening hours.  And next week, Ellen and I will indulge in the serviceberry* wine, and perhaps put up next year's batch, if we have time between delicious nibbles and catching up on important things in the world of plants and Everything Else.  

*Everyone in that paragraph will be saying Amelanchier for serviceberry you're OK with that, right?

Bu got us off to a celebratory start.  Next year, please join us!  Promise I'll remember to invite you, and to plan a truly eventful event.  For now, just pencil in "berries" for JUNE.

Before the recipe - and I use that term loosely - here's the latest installment of 'what we ate': lunch today was ground turkey/duck liver burgers, seasoned with cumin, sumac, and garlic chives, plus carrots and the sole food I'm trying to eat less of, potato chips.

Breakfast was a pork cut I've never had before - sort of like a hangar steak... with plantains.

Last night's dinner was duck breast, sweet potato fries (on the stovetop, in duck fat, DO IT), with serviceberry sauce.  The sauce was heading toward becoming sorbet - this is a pre-freezing inspiration.  So far, it's a multi-purpose serviceberry substrate - and it would have a completely different character and deliciousness in a cooked version. Here it is raw:

4 C serviceberries
2 glugs maple syrup
shake in some sumac (mine was store-bought - bonus points if you foraged yours)
Look, three ingredients, from three trees!
Some water...add lemon juice, perhaps, if you lack sumac
(bonus points if you try this with infused sassafras twigs, with or instead of the sumac)

Blend, then add more water.  The berries seem very pectin-y, and much less watery than the strawberry version we made last week.  So... add more water!  I strained it to get the seeds out, though I regretted every drop of flavor lost to the sieve.  If I were planning to enjoy this alone, or in a cooked version, I wouldn't strain.

Before freezing in your sorbet-maker, serve some with duck...or make an almond granita and to enjoy with serviceberry sauce!

The ripe ones in this picture are halfway to swallowed.  He doesn't eat them off the tree, though.  Gooood dog...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What we ate

A friend emailed today asking what we eat.  She's in a moment of dietary flux (what worked before isn't working now).  I like that question!  Although avoiding my list of NO foods has made life better in myriad ways, I prefer thinking about what we *do* eat - to say YES to the YUM.

So from time to time, I'm going to reflect dreamily on something delicious we've eaten.  I hope this provides you with some dreamy reflection, too.

Strawberry ice:

About 2 pounds of strawberries
A whole lemon (I did wrestle the seeds out)
Juice of another lemon
2 modest glugs of maple syrup

  • Wash the strawberries, cut the lemon into chunks, and blend all ingredients.  Go ahead and taste it to adjust sweetness; these berries were very ripe and sweet, and I prefer my sweets not over-sweet.  
  • Process in an ice cream maker, if you have one.  If not, freeze for about half an hour, then give it another round in the food processor or blender to fluff it up, and freeze a while longer. 
  • Remove from the freezer a while before you're ready to serve.  
  • Nutritional analysis:  seriously?  This made 6 servings (no, we didn't share - the two of us relished every bite on three occasions).

Enjoy strawberry festival time at Greenmarkets around the city.  I'll be making something similar with serviceberries soon, and blueberries and peaches follow hard upon.

(Also on the menu this week - Hake with garlic and garlic chives, roasted asparagus, big salad.  Duck breast, sweet potatoes, dandelion greens.  There's a roast chicken come right up soon.)

Bon appetit!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Viola lab shipping closeupWhy, yes, you're right - that's a whole lot of Viola labradorica peeking out of that to-be-recycled paper.  And yes, I just ripped it out of the ground, lots of it, and YES, FedExed  to Mary's garden in Gloucester.  (And no, that is not best horticultural practice.)

All gazillion V. labradorica plants in my garden descend from a few I transplanted from Mary's mother's garden in Connecticut, on a June day very long ago.  And Jean is coming to visit Mary in mid-June.  So...  we have a little time.  I included some very beefy plants (those roots are almost woody!), and some medium plants, which I suspect will adapt a little more easily.  But they're violets, for crying out loud.  They will adapt.*

If we lose this whole batch, I will have weeded my garden a little, and we'll try again.  But they've arrived, and Mary will let us know when they look more like this:

Viola labradorica in flower

I like plants that have a story, or tell a story, or contribute to one.  It doesn't have to be a complicated narrative - a trip from a Wethersfield garden, to Brooklyn, and then up to Gloucester is just the sort of drive any of us might do in a weekend.  It's a pleasant, sociable trip.  And though I haven't found them exceptionally flavorful, these violets are nominally edible, so they help tell my Shady Kitchen Garden tale.

*How's this for adaptable:  like some other violets, this species produces cleistogamous flowers after the cute, showy ones... those buds don't bother to open into adorable purple flowers (think of all the saved plant energy), but simply self-pollinate before firing an additional salvo of seed in every direction - by my count, about a dozen seeds per bud.  If you have an over-abundance of violets seeding in, take a look for stealth seed pods (...and if you don't have an over-abundance of violets, keep that overnight shipping option in mind).

Exciting update:  the violets have arrived, they're planted, hooray!

Thursday, May 16, 2013


Pretty exciting, isn't it? I count 8 or 9 seedlings of a plant that intrigues me so much, I collected its ripe seed and sowed it last fall.

Outdoor fall sowing works for many temperate-zone plants, which expect* a cold-then-warm cycle to cue them that conditions are favorable for embarking on life as a plant. Some plants (probably those whose seed ripens in summer) expect a warm-cold-warm cycle. Of course, you could buy a special fridge for your seed-sowing projects to recreate these cycles artificially; your apple emits ethylene gas that can inhibit seed germination. After all, you'd be a silly apple seed to germinate and then get eaten by a passing mammal - you'd never survive the digestive-tract journey! A seed is very much alive - but in a far less vulnerable form than a just-sprung seedling.

Fascinating though all that is, that is not what I most urge you to learn. Here's today's vital plant-propagation lesson:

LABEL. Label whatever envelope or slip of paper you use to collect seed; label pots or trays you sow seed in (sticks work; you can write directly on some pots, or on tape). Same goes for cuttings, of course - but today's about seeds and seedlings.

Label, label, label!  I think I know what plant this is; I'll know for sure soon enough. If I'm right, it's Mitchella repens, a plant so ridiculously easy to propagate from cuttings, I must have seeded it just Because I Can. Or it might be the mystery seed I soaked for so long, I had forgotten all about it by the time I re-found and sowed it. (If that's the case, this species benefits from lengthy soaking of seeds, pre-sowing - this looks like ~100% germination of that tiny handful of seeds!)

Here's some seed of Salvia sclarea, a beautiful blue form - as you can tell, from the labels - on the paper I'm using to clean it, and on the envelope storing the cleaned seed..  I collected this seed at the Gowanus Nursery, for Michele.  (You may thank her for this important propagation lesson.  Let's repeat it together:  LABEL.)  You can see that some of the seeds are dark brown, some creamy, and some intermediate in color.  The darkest ones are ripe for sure; the palest likely not to be.  Some in-betweens might be developed enough to germinate.

If you've been putting off growing perennial plants from seed - fear not.  Many are remarkably easy.  Sow seed in fall - or whenever it's ripe - and let nature take its course.  And label, so you'll know in spring what you've grown!

*It's usually said that these species "require" these cold/warm cycles.  That is, of course, because they evolved where those cycles occur; I say "expect" because I'm trying to take a step back and inhabit a larger context (along with the plants).  I could have mimicked this process to trick them into "breaking" dormancy and germinating on my schedule.  But no need - the weather and I and the seeds are all pretty much on the same page.  So they made a break for it when the time was right.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

(and april's where we're)

I was recently pondering a great mystery of the plant world - so I had a lot of fresh opinion on hand when a student asked me a related question.

More on my original notion another time. Here's Fiona*'s dilemma: she was thinking of planting a red-twig dogwood in a friend's partly sunny front yard. A Knowledgeable Person (highly regarded by owner of said front yard) mentioned that the newly planted street trees would cast considerable shade when they mature, so recommended a dwarf blue spruce with a reputation for unusual shade tolerance.

(Yes, I agree with you - the understory shrubby dogwood is likely to be more agreeable to shade than the blue spruce whose destiny would have been Great Height, were it not for that dwarf-causing mutation.) But here's Fiona's question: how bad should she feel about taking a chance on this dwarf conifer, and putting it at risk of Non-Thriving?

My answer is - not at all, and for at least two reasons.

Reason #1: This dwarf blue spruce is not an individual - not in the way my dog is, the way you are. The original plant had unique genetics - so unique in its dwarfness, it was selected for vegetative propagation on a massive scale. (And probably, without horticultural intervention, the original 'individual' would have led an atypically short life - but that's another matter.) Every single dwarf blue spruce with that cultivar name (which I don't know) - whether it's in a garden, or in a big-box store, or a specialty nursery - is a genetically identical clone.

Reason #2: Not only is it going to be some time before those street trees cast their eventual shade; this plant is destined for a container. Any number of things can go wrong for a container-grown plant between now and the arrival of mature-canopy shade - including plant theft, irrigation failure, getting hit by a motorbike, change of heart on the owner's part, and if you've ever done much container gardening, you can probably add to that list.

You know I could go on - but instead, perhaps you'll give me a third reason?

Of course, Fiona should do her best research and thinking and make a good plant-to-place match (always, all of us, always). But nature itself is a giant experiment - how could gardening be otherwise?

Here's an accidental Trillium (I am a lucky gardener!), busy with its own vegetative propagation project:

How cool is that - five stems, where there was once one? I'll know more about what that means underground when it goes dormant. Then, I'll be moving this plant-of-wonder into my edible, native, shady garden**, and I'd be as upset if anyone ate it (looking at you, squirrel) as I am thrilled that it found its way here. I'm not saying that asexual reproduction makes a plant any less worthy. I'm not even saying that plants doing their thing, on their own, is even cooler than people patenting plants and mastering tissue culture - although I might agree with myself, if I were saying that.

And I'm certainly not saying that good old-fashioned plant sex isn't about the coolest thing on earth. Lookie here:

Some of you just licked your lips. (You know who you are.) More on these sexy beasts come July.

Happy almost May, all! Especially for those who drop by here for knitting, food, the dog, or any of my other, um, topics, thanks for reading through the plant philosophizing. And come back prepared, as I feel another such notion coming on something fierce. For all of us, here's an April attendance bonus, from e.e. cummings.

* may or may not be her real name.

** because adding more criteria to your plant list makes choosing plants easier - not harder.  Do it.

yes is a pleasant country:
if's wintry
(my lovely)
let's open the year

both is the very weather
(not either)
my treasure,
when violets appear

love is a deeper season
than reason;
my sweet one
(and april's where we're)

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The [free-range, organic] elephant in the room

Today's my 2nd gluten-free-versary.  The Great Gluten Crash of March 5, 2011 was such a life-changing watershed, I want to review...  and then maybe I can go back to sharing occasional thoughts about plants and places, and knitting and songs and whiskers on kittens.  

After a month-long (vegan!), gluten-free experiment, failure to plan led to ordering takeout, including a flour tortilla.  I woke up on 3/5/11 a little smug that I'd been right - gluten did indeed turn out not to be good for me!  But smugness wore off when I stayed too sick, for too long, losing a pound a day for a week (and probably a dozen pounds in that first month).  I was brain-foggy and weak, and I lost all kinds of muscle mass, and scared the hell out of my good Robert. It was pretty persuasive.

Lab tests verified.  I was surprised that I have an official celiac gene.  Makes me wonder whether any of my parents' late-life health issues might have been avoided... and whether I might avoid them myself.  

Here's the skinny:  Many people (not only those of us with 'celiac genes') develop an immune response to gluten - more specifically to gliadin, the form of gluten found in wheat, rye, barley and grains such as spelt, kamut, and einkorn.  Once the body has developed antibodies to gliadin, ingesting gliadin prompts an immune-system attack, just as it would for a pathogen.  Additional antibodies may develop against tissue transglutaminase, an enzyme found in many parts of the body (yup, I had those, too) - an autoimmune response.  

Microscopic amounts of gluten trigger this immune reaction.  (Isn't that what we pay the immune system to do, after all?)  There is no safe amount of gluten.  Europe's FDA analog permits a product to be labeled 'gluten-free' if it contains less than 20 parts per million, though some people with celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity react below that threshold.

I could go on (are you surprised?).  And you need to know more.  But first, let's eat, shall we?

Here's what we won't be consuming:

No gluten grains - that's wheat, rye, barley, plus spelt, kamut, einkorn.

No oats.  I'm not sure whether I have an express problem with them, but aside from the contamination that's hard to avoid in processing and packaging, oats are often contaminated with wheat in the field.  (Whoa.)

No grains at all. About once a month, I have a few corn chips or a bit of rice, especially if someone has gone to trouble to create something I can eat.

No dried beans/legumes. I have chickpeas or lentils maybe 2x/year, if they appear in a dish I'd like to try for other reasons.  I do eat green beans.

No dairy. The dairy protein casein contains peptides very similar to those in gluten.  These peptides interact with opiate receptors in the brain (which may explain the neuro symptoms some gluten-sensitive folks experience).  The molecular mimicry might explain why I tested positive for antibodies to casein, as well as to gluten - but in any case, I never again want to feel the way dairy made me feel.

Almost nothing that comes in a package with a label to read.  I do buy frozen artichoke hearts, and occasionally we use canned tomatoes.

Does that sound like deprivation?  It doesn't feel that way.  Dropping a ton of weight in a hurry, feeling awful, and losing huge amounts of muscle... that was awful. I now seem to eat more variety and more deliciousness than many omnivores.  

What do I eat?  (Really, you don't remember any other food groups?)  

Meat - my vegetarian/near-veg days are over. During the Great Crash, I only recovered my calf muscles when I increased my intake of high-quality protein. So, not without some mixed feelings, I eat mammals, birds, and fishes.

Quite a lot of vegetables, in a huge range of categories and colors. If you've concluded that it's impossible to consume enough leafy greens to provide enough of some nutrient or other, you should come on over to our house for breakfast some day. The mess of greens that starts most days around here would do you good. We certainly eat more vegetables than a couple of vegetarians we know, who subsist primarily on pastry.

Some fruits, nuts, and seeds.

And, of course, dark chocolate.  And wine.  

We use olive oil, coconut oil, and duck fat, which are yummy (and healthful).

How do I eat? Joyfully.

I struggle to convey how wondrously this has simplified my life. I am a middle-aged American woman, and I like what I weigh. My energy is better, my body composition has improved, hayfever season hardly troubles me, and the aches and pains I attributed to middle age are mostly gone. My blood pressure no longer borders on high. I don't get headaches. My hair got darker - though I'm still plenty gray, and it's a superficial benefit. I never diet, count calories, or ponder grams of fat or carbohydrate. I never agonize over whether I should have a cookie (or a second cookie) – or over anything I might eat. At a buffet, I can expect there might be carrot sticks, and perhaps nothing else for me. So I spend my time at social events.... socializing. I don't get that frantic hunger that interferes with my day - probably because of relatively stable blood sugar. I think about food less, and more pleasurably. I can't recommend it highly enough, despite my certainty that you're not going to take me up on it.

I've harvested some excellent ideas from the Paleo-sphere. I particularly appreciate the sensible and broad-ranging approach Mark Sisson brings to He understands the science, and is curious and articulate about sleep and sociability and playfulness and all kinds of humanness beyond exercise and diet.) Though there's some nonsense in the Paleo arena, I suspect they're onto something – especially when I read the irrationality and silliness in typical attacks against their line of thinking.

If you're wondering what must be missing from my diet, you've perhaps been reading articles by folks from Big Nutrition - and just as we now know that medicine is unduly influenced by what Big Pharma can spend to get their attention, it turns out that Big Food drives a lot of the educational message nutrition pros receive. (Hint: they don't fortify flour because it's a particularly good source of nutrients.)

So what's for dinner? I'm so glad you asked! Halibut, and vegetables to be named shortly, and wine. I'll grind some almonds to coat the fish before cooking, and some lemon will certainly be squeezed.

Bon appetit!  And look forward to the occasional recipe, menu, food photo, or diatribe about deliciousness.  And now back to knitting... I have much to achieve before gardening begins in earnest.