Last week one of the gardeners I work with gave me these two beauties. They are about 6″ long, are a greenish yellow and are heavy for their size. They are also quite hard. I had no idea what they were when he first showed them to me.
Chinese quince, or Pseudocydonia sinensis, is a beautiful smallish tree that has bark which looks a bit like army camouflage. The flowers are a delicate pink and are quite fragrant. The fruit ripens in late fall and also has a lovely scent.
Quince used to be much more common in the US because it’s high amount of pectin made it useful for making jams and preserves. I think the product most people know is quince paste, which is usually sold in fancy cheese stores.
I’ve been trolling the internet to find a good quince jelly recipe. I’ll let you know what I come up with.
Fall is the time to look for hen of the woods mushrooms. They are also known as maitake. They are be found under oak trees. A few weeks ago I was poking around the oak trees at one of the gardens I work in and saw this. It is the very beginning of one of these tasty mushrooms. You can even see the acorns in the lower corner. As much as I wanted to pick it right then and there, it just wasn’t ready. I asked for permission to come back in a week to get it. Only problem was that a week later someone else had beaten me to it. Grr. That is why mushroom hunters are so secretive about their spots. It is too frustrating to know there is a delicious mushroom there and then have someone else take it.
Our friends saw this sign over the weekend. I need to make one!
This past weekend Neil and I went out with the NYMS for a morel hunt. The spot is about an hour and change outside of the city. You have to be a member to get directions to this spot!
There wasn’t a morel in sight. It seems as though this hard winter we’ve had has pushed the morel season back a couple of weeks. Not wanting to go home empty handed, I collected a big bag of garlic mustard and some japanese knotweed.
Garlic mustard is a terrible invasive plant, so you are doing everyone a favor by picking as much of it as you can. Forager’s etiquette (not over harvesting native plants) does NOT apply in this case. Garlic mustard leaves are at their tender best before the plant blooms. As with all foraging, please consult a guidebook for identification of plants!
I wanted to make pesto with the greens and followed a recipe I found on a fellow forager’s site. Against my better judgment I used walnuts instead of pine nuts. The whole batch came out too bitter. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s usable.
Japanese knotweed is good right now. It is also terribly invasive. Large bamboo-like stands grow up on the side of streams, roads and in disturbed areas.
The shoots are quite tender at this time of year, so don’t require as much peeling as the older/larger stalks do. Knotweed can be substituted for rhubarb in recipes.
I decided to wait on making the japanese knotweed into anything as I read it freezes well. And because my pesto was such a stellar failure. I washed it carefully as it seems to attract large numbers of ants.
Strip off the leaves and chop into 1″ pieces. Then freeze.
Although we didn’t find any mushrooms, there were still plenty of lovely natural things to look at. We saw crows chasing a great horned owl out of its tree.
Beautiful spring ephemerals were blooming.
I know what you are thinking… You are thinking Poison Sumac. Relax. There are other varieties, which are completely wonderful and harmless. Check your guides before you eat any wild edible, but a good rule of thumb with sumac is that if the flower stalk is red, it isn’t poisonous.
The juice you make from a sumac has a wonderfully tart lemonade-like flavor that is very refreshing in summer.
We drove along the roadsides with garden clippers and a big shopping bag. I can’t tell you exactly how many we picked, but it felt like several pounds worth. It filled the bottom 1/3 of a large shopping bag. Here’s a photo of our haul.
Okay, so once you have gathered a bunch of flower stalks, grab a big canning pot, or stock pot. Fill it halfway with room temperature water. DO NOT rinse the flowers off before you use them or all the flavor will wash away.
Drop a few stalks into the water. Grab and squeeze the flowers. The flowers will fall off the stalk and that’s fine. Just keep kneading and squeezing the flowers. You will notice that tiny red hairs from the flowers will start sticking to your hands. They will wash off.
Take the flower stalks out and add new ones. Keep doing this until you run out of flowers. The more flowers you have, the stronger the juice. Here’s a photo of our concentrated juice to give you an idea of the color it will be.
The juice is really great, and lends itself well to many things. You could cook with it, but we just added seltzer to make spritzers. There will be a cocktail recipe coming up shortly!
This past weekend we went car camping in the Berkshires with friends. It was so beautiful and peaceful.
Lindsay was a great help cooking. We made the world’s best s’mores using Little Schoolboy cookies instead of chocolate bars and graham crackers. Lindsay learned how to make a box oven in Girl Scouts and we baked brownies. To make one, you just line a cardboard box with aluminum foil and punch some holes. You place charcoal briquettes in a pan on the bottom (it’s about 30 degrees per piece, so you need about 11-12 coals to bake a normal cake)
And we found loads and loads of choice edible mushrooms while hiking!
Black trumpet mushrooms
Chicken of the woods mushrooms
When the violets are out and blooming, make sure to gather some for your kitchen. These edible flowers can be used in many ways. You can sprinkle them in salads to add a splash of color, you can freeze them in ice cubes to put in fancy drinks, you can crystallize them (although I have never done that), and you can make violet syrup.
I looked at various recipes for violet syrup and they were all various combinations of violets, water and sugar. I decided to wing it a bit and the results came out well.
First, gather as many violets as you can. It seems as though the flowers will be their sweetest before they are in full sun. So early day or early evening works best. You can use your hand like a rake to catch the flowers between your fingers. This makes it quicker. Recruiting small children works well. My daughter loved picking flowers with me.
Rinse off the flowers and pluck off the stems. I wasn’t clear whether I needed to remove the green bit on the end of the flower as well. The first batch (photo below) I went crazy OCD and removed them. My second batch, I didn’t. I couldn’t tell any difference, so save yourself a lot of work and leave the green ends on.
My recipe based on how many flowers I gathered..
- 1/2 quart of violet flowers in a heat-proof jar with lid
- Add 1 1/2 cups boiling water. Let this sit 24 hours.
- Strain the violets out of the water and press as much liquid as you can from them.
- Combine 3 cups of sugar to the liquid and heat in a pan until the sugar dissolves.
- Stand back and look at the gorgeous liquid and start planning how you are going to use it.
We tried it in cocktails, but I thought the subtle violet flavor was lost and only tasted the sugar. We have made soda by adding some seltzer. It is like the European fruit syrups used to flavor fizzy water. And we have poured it over waffles. It’s really lovely.
Interestingly enough, violets were used as a kind of litmus paper. If you add an acid like lemon juice, the liquid will change to a magenta color. I believe it turns green with a base, although I’ve not tried that.
This year we’ve decided to try a new crop to our little urban garden. Potatoes! Yukon gold in fact. I tried going the cheap route and bought some from the grocery store. After a couple of weeks trying to sprout them, I read that sometimes potatoes are soaked in something to prevent them from sprouting. Euw! Not sure what that is.
So then I decided to order “official” seed potatoes. By the time they arrived my grocery store ones started to sprout. Of course! So if the potatoes work, I will be rich with them. The potatoes are from a place in Colorado called The Potato Garden.
And since my soil is lousy and filled with glass, I looked into suitable containers for growing them. You have to have something that is deep, so you can keep adding soil (hilling) as the plants grow. This keeps the potatoes from getting hit by the sun, which causes them to turn green and be bitter. I found Smart Pots and ordered 2 of them. They are made out of a sturdy fabric. I thought I would give them a try.
placing one of the seed potatoes
As usual, I have to put my garden behind bars to keep the squirrels from destroying the unestablished plants.
potatoes planted and behind bars
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I have been in a bit of a funk lately. I am distracted and easily overwhelmed, which amounts to my not getting much of anything done. Or done particularly well. But I have been doing some things and then my funk just extends to writing about them.
Here are a few things I’ve been doing in my long absence.
This huge bag is filled with basil. The temperatures were dipping down into the low 50s and 40s were on their way, so we pulled it all out and made lots of pesto. I just blend the basil with some toasted pine nuts, olive oil and garlic. This year I “cooked” the cloves of garlic in the microwave for about 10-15 seconds, which took a bit of the raw bite out of them. I freeze the pesto to use throughout the winter. Once it is thawed, I mix grated parmesan cheese into it.
Have you heard of New Zealand Spinach? My grandmother used to grow it in her garden. Her house was the only place I’ve ever eaten it. It is similar to spinach, but has a bit more substance after cooking. I saw it in a seed catalog and decided to grow it for myself. I just sautéed some garlic in olive oil and then added it at the end and cooked it until it was just wilted. As a kid I used to think my grandma’s NZ Spinach made my teeth pucker, but I didn’t have that experience eating this batch.
And then there were more volunteer tomatoes. These came from the grape tomatoes that we put in our daughter’s lunches (and sometimes end up in the compost bin). I oven dried them at 220F for about 1 1/2 hours with a bit of sea salt. And I don’t have a photo of the finished product because we snarfed them down too quickly!
Okay, it’s bad when you are belated on your own birthday!!! But I’m so behind on everything that I thought I should just start here.
On my birthday, Neil and I decided to play hookie. It was a little drizzly, so we just put on the rain gear we bought for our trip to Iceland and went for a hike. There is a park in the middle of crazy, urban Queens, NY called Forest Park. And it is just that. A forest. It’s really a weird feeling to be walking in the woods knowing that you are in the middle of NYC.
Neil and I started learning about and hunting mushrooms last year. We’ve been lucky enough to find some delicious edible mushrooms. However, we were disappointed last Fall not to find hen of the woods (aka maitake). They generally grow under oak trees in the Fall. As we walked, we kept our eyes open for these mushrooms, and were lucky enough to find a few clumps of them.
They are beautiful mushrooms without poisonous look-alikes, which makes them quite safe for beginners. (Okay, now I must add that if you are ever going to hunt mushrooms, please consult a guide, an expert, or both. Do not go off the photos on this blog!!) These mushrooms have been described as resembling flamenco dancer’s skirts. Love these colorful descriptions!!
I asked some of my mushroom friends how they prepare hen of the woods. We decided to pull them apart like broccoli florets, brush them with olive oil, sprinkle salt and pepper and grill them on the bbq. They were delicious. What a lovely birthday present!
At the beginning of the spring, I noticed that my two tiny apple trees had a bumper crop of apples. There were easily 3 fruits per cluster, which was way more than the tiny trees could support. I was going to have to thin the fruit, which helps the remaining fruit grow larger, and also protects the young tree from broken branches.
Before I thinned the fruit, the tree did it for me. There are lots of tiny apples under both trees, and now there are no more than 2 fruits per cluster. Nature is amazing.