A few years ago, I took a walk in my neighborhood and found this strange tree. It was growing what looked like blackberries – only a bit skinnier and thornless. I, of course, did not eat a strange plant randomly growing by the side of the road. But not too much later, I got my copy of my much-thumbed, much-beloved foraging book. Reading through my book, in the cold winter nights, and contemplating how I could possibly make up flash cards to teach myself the identifications, one of the entries flashed past my eyes with recognition. “If I hear someone say they found a blackberry tree, I know it’s a mulberry”.
Huh. A mulberry.
Like so many people, my full experience of mulberries involves a monkey and weasel, engaged in not-too-good-natured athletics. But that had led me to expect a bush. This was a tree, half crowded over with invasive vines and taller trees. But half in and half out of the shade, it drops its bounty onto the sidewalk.
I had a hunch that it was about ripe, this time of year. And so I walked down with Thane to check it out. And lo, there were mulberries. I tasted one. It was delicious. I shared one with Thane. He liked it too. We came back with a sheet and two big paper bags.
Thane and I had a lovely time gathering the berries. There was a bit of climbing involved. I tried the recommended trick of shaking onto a sheet, but it didn’t work. We had very hard rains last night – I wonder if they knocked all the ripest ones down ahead of time.
Once Thane and I got (most) of them home. They’re pretty tasty. There wasn’t really enough for a pie, or a batch of jam. But I decided the opportunity was too critical to let pass, and I decided to make *half* a batch of jam, using a “berry” recipe from one of my books. It worked. Thane now filled with a tremendous sense of accomplishment, and the new but fervent belief that his favorite berries are mulberries.
I’m usually pretty good with food for my family. Most of the time I cook a fair deal, and enjoy feeding people. I get a farmshare about a third of the year, which helps get the creative juices (by which I mean sheer panic) going. But I’ve been in a serious cooking rut the last few months. There’s the constant battle with the kids about what they will and won’t eat. (They philosophically know that veggies are good for them, but Grey’s current favorite food is the whitest of white bread with JIF peanut butter – which is basically peanut butter candy.) There’s the ever present time constraints. And honestly, I just got sick of all my recipes. I recently attempted listing them in a spreadsheet to see if there were any I wasn’t sick of, and there are 37 of them on my list. I’m sure there are more I’ve forgotten.
But I was definitely sick of all of them.
I trolled through my cookbooks looking for new or forgotten recipes, and considered how much things have changed. My earliest recipe book, the Whitehouse Cookbook, called for difficult to acquire ingredients. Like bear. Or possum. And it made rather large presuppositions about my cooking facilities – I have rather a dearth of earthen pits. But I have plenty of recipe books that lean rather heavily on cream of mushroom soup, as a genre. The cookbooks I got when I was first married, like Betty Crocker, still hold up in some arenas, but are on the whole more processed, less vegetably and not so healthy as I want to eat. (They’re tough to beat in the pie-zone though.)
So I ordered a bunch of new cookbooks, and complained on Facebook.
What I really want is a cookbook that does all of that:
– Pairs ingredients that are available together seasonally (like brussel sprouts and sweet potatoes)
– Uses the stuff I get a lot of (hellloooo kale!)
– Can feed between 4 – 12 people (the range of eaters at my table)
– Can be made in an hour or less
– Is healthy
– Doesn’t use extra weird ingredients (looking at you asafetida)
– That my kids will like
– That my husband will like
In this season of whining, my friends really came through for me. Prior to my Facebook posting, one friend sent me a free week of Hello Fresh, which did end up making two very tasty meals that fit all my criteria. I’d tried Blue Apron before, but found it really hard to work in a meal service PLUS a CSA. I think that I may sign up for another meal service in the fall when my farmshare is done.
Another friend actually found the right cookbook for me. Two of them actually. And she sent them to me, which was incredibly kind of her. My own explorations were not nearly so successful. They’re both from America’s Test Kitchen (as is about 70% of my in-rotation cookbook collection). And they look AMAZING. Nutritious Delicious seems very much a response to “oh crap, my farmshare sent me kale again”. I particularly appreciate the nutrition information, but sadly it doesn’t tell me recipe prep time. I’ve definitely missed a “simmer for two hours” instruction before in recipes, so I really like the prep time estimates, even though I always assume they’ll take a little longer.
But the one I’m *really* excited about is “Dinner Illustrated“. This is the cookbook I’ve been waiting for all my life. OK, for at least a few years. It’s done in a meal-plan style, where the sides are included in the recipe. All the recipes take an hour or less, soup to nuts. There’s step by step picture instructions. There’s a huge section of vegetarian recipes, making reducing your meat intake an appealing prospect. I was a little disappointed to see that it didn’t have nutritional information on the recipes. I don’t normally care, but my father is visiting me and he’s working on handling his diabetes with better nutrition. (Given my life at work is helping people manage their diabetes better, I’m fully in support!) So knowing how many carbs are in a recipe is important. But then I flipped to the back and discovered that there’s a full accounting of the nutritional information in a handy table, helping me find lower carb, higher protein options. FTW.
I just came up with my meal list for the week, and I’m very excited. Rut, busted.
All this made me feel happy and grateful for my good friends. It also made me remember to stop and think of how lucky I am. My oppression by the boredom of my favorite recipes, while a real problem for me, is the very best problem one can have with food. I can afford healthy food. I have easy access to a wide range of fresh ingredients. I have time to cook healthy food. I have a fully equipped kitchen, ready to zest, peel, slice, blanche and otherwise prepare healthy food – and I have all those skills to do it. (Although my knife skills are no better than meh.) I don’t need to consider any eating disorders. My family does not need a specialized diet – no food allergies or intolerances or religious restrictions. Then to top it off, I have friends who are able to help me out. Not for any dire need, but even for small things recipe malaise.
How fortunate I am. How easy it is to forget. So today, as I write out my grocery list, I am grateful. And remembering that the list maybe should include some of the things my local food pantry needs, too.
1) Bike to Work
This week was “Bike to Work Week”. My employer is big into Bike To Work week, and strongly encourages people to participate. It’s also pretty mellow on the “show up exactly at 9 and leave exactly at 5” scale (as long as your work gets done). So with the near-completion of the Stoneham Greenway, all the way through to Winchester Center, I reckoned just maybe it was time to give it a try. I’m pretty scared of biking in traffic. My sister had an extremely serious biking injury when I was in my early teens. Biking in traffic like a grownup seems terrifying. So I posted to an internal group that I was interested in participating (going from my house to Alewife and taking the T in), but asking for good route advice. I got excellent route advice, a t-shirt with a weird Illuminati-biking theme, the loan of front and back headlights, and a colleague who SHOWED UP AT MY HOUSE AT 8:15 to ride in with me and make sure I felt safe. The mind boggles that people could be so awesome, but it turns out that sometimes they are.
It took a surprising amount of mental energy. It also took about 2 hours each way, so that’s unlikely to become a regular thing. I thought a lot about what I was going to do, how I was going to do it, and what I’d do if it didn’t work. It was a really novel experience, and I was interested to see how much my mind was engaged and excited by the novelty of it. I was also surprised and pleased that I wasn’t all that physically wiped out by it (except for mebbe that last hill on the way home). I’ve been in better shape lately – we’ve been running a loop with the bikeway as well which is close to 4 miles and I set a personal record best time & personal record longest run last week.
There was this moment, as I spun through brand-new asphalt on the not-quite-yet-finished bikeway where I really really enjoyed the fact that it exists at all. The community came together and made this thing happen, which was not easy. My first post about it was five years ago. Since then there have been Town Hall Meetings, letters to the editor, phone banking, cleanup days and patient and concerted effort to make it happen. It’s astonishing to think that after so long, the efforts of the good-hearted people of Stoneham are bearing fruit, but here they are!
Speaking of bearing fruit, I’ve been more than a little obsessed with my plums this year. The point at which you’re putting a space heater out for a fruit tree, you have crossed some important line. However, I’m happy to say that they’ve made it the furthest this year in the history of this benighted plum. There are hundreds of tiny little fruits. Most are the size of a lentil, but there are one or two that are the size of really small olives.
I’m excited to learn what disaster can kill fruit at this stage! I’ll let you know.
3) Attic Renovation
I’ve been getting strong pressure from maternal sources to post an update in the attic situation. Here’s the album where you can watch the whole thing progress. We have the electric & plumbing in, as well as a lot of the framing. Almost all the demo is completed (or was, until we increased scope like the home owners we are). The inspection has been done. There’s a bit of waiting for the next step – we need to put in the new windows, but they’re on order and won’t be ready until early June. We also need to get the HVAC in and all hooked up. We opted to go for a bigger unit so we can drop some cool air in summer down to the 2nd floor and actually get it to be a comfortable temperature – sandwiched between two zones. We also had to put in new hard-wired smoke detectors for the whole house to bring it up to code, and bring in a new electric bank. Once we have HVAC & windows in, we’ll do closed cell insulation from the bottom of the walls to the tip top of the roof. We’ll need to vacate the house then for a day. But that’ll be the biggest tipping point – then we can start doing finish type work like, you know, walls & stuff.
I reckon the project will be done by early August, if I’m lucky.
4)Time with my boys
I got to go to Fenway on Thursday night for the makeup game from Patriot’s day. It was so perfect. The weather was ideal. The game was excellent (and we won). It’s an interesting moment when you learn that your child is really good company. We had good conversations, we were game-watching-compatible. On the walk back to where we parked, he didn’t like how someone had bumped up against me, and then protectively took the spot between me and other people. How quickly we go from protecting them to them feeling protective of us. He’s still not bigger than me, but that will not last long.
In the same vein, every year for Mother’s Day we go to the Arnold Arboretum for the Lilac Festival. And every year for many the boys have climbed these ponderous birch trees with tempting limbs and I’ve taken their pictures there. This year, we arrived to find a denuded slope. I never thought that the grand trees my boys climbed on would not outlast our Mother’s Day tradition. I will admit tears welled in my eyes. I’m grieved for the magnificent trees that were lost (although I’m sure the arborists did everything in their power to save them). But it was this shocking moment to discover that we are all now old enough for things that were traditions to come to final endings. It’s astonishing enough to have sufficient tenure to parenthood to have traditions in the first place. I feel very unready to have traditions end.
5) Finding my feet again
Every year for Mothers Day I write my mother a letter about how things have been in the past year. Last year I wrote a letter that talked about how overwhelmed I was, especially with huge projects like the pastor search and kicking off the attic project. I added a few things to my tally during the course of the year, the largest of which was probably getting a new job. But slowly slowly slowly, since about January, I’ve been unburying myself from the accumulation of things that needed to be done, and shortening that infinite to do list. Clearing out the attic in preparation for our project was a huge one that I suspect added a lot to my anxiety. Things have been getting crossed off. I’m starting to arrive at a point where I almost feel like I can actually rest without guilt, sometimes. Of course, there’s always more to-do list to go, and I haven’t fulfilled every promise I made for “after we hired a pastor”. But I’m closer, and that’s really reassuring.
Among the many fantasy hobbies I have, one of my favorites is fantasy foraging. All winter long, I have Northeast Foraging on my bedside stand, attempting to memorize the facts for field garlic or may apples or fiddleheads so that on some future date I might be walking through the Fells, stop short and knowingly declare to my companion “Ah, it looks like the epazote is in season. Excellent, my last preserved set is nearly done, and my enchiladas simply aren’t the same without it!” Then (in my fantasy life) I’d take out my beautifully prepared foraging kit, expertly select a sustainable harvest of the plant in question, and then go home and use it in my latest home cooked meal that night.
I do have a great imagination, don’t I? It’s a consolation in this troubled age.
On Saturday, Adam and I took a run along a portion of the as-yet-unfinished Tri-Community Greenway. Running along, I spotted not two blocks from my house one of the approximately five plants I *can* ID at sight – the ubiquitous Japanese Knotweed.
Today, in a break in the rain, Adam and I returned to the spot, knives in hand, to make our harvest. A very very short time later we had about 10x more knotweed than we needed, and I returned to the kitchen. In my fozen reserves are one pound of chopped rhubarb from last season. It’s difficult to get one’s rhubarb and one’s strawberries to tie out perfectly, especially when one has preteen boys who like strawberries. So here’s my plan – I’m going to make rhubarb knotweed jam, using a rhubarb jam recipe. It’ll probably be really quite sour. It may be terrible. It may be amazing. Here’s the journey of discovery!
Step 1: Cut up the knotweed
Fortunately, my handy foraging book explains how to prep the knotweed for use. I only used the smallest shoots, guaranteeing tenderness. I contemplate, cutting them up, how much like octopus they look. I’ve given up eating octopus on the belief that they’re too smart to eat. The same may be true of Japanese Knotweed, but I show no mercy to the invasives.
Step 2: Decide on a jam recipe
So here’s a secret for you. There aren’t THAT many variables in a jam recipe. Basically you have fruit mass, sourness, sugar & pectin. The only tricky one is pectin – some plants have it natively (mostly apples). Most don’t. I ended up with:
1 lb cut japanese knotweed
1 lb frozen cut rhubarb
1/2 cup water
7 cups sugar
1 tablespoon butter (I always add this, despite no recipes ever calling for it, to keep the foaming down. #secrets)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (I debated – this was definitely sour enough – but decided the anti-oxidation factor was worthwhile)
1 packet liquid pectin (Certo)
First I boiled the rhubarb & knotweed in the water until tender.
Then I added the butter & sugar & lemon juice.
Once it was at a roiling boil, I added the pectin & boiled for one additional minute.
Then I jarred it.
Step 3: Realize that making up recipes is harder than it looks
Japanese knotweed is green. Rhubarb is dominantly red. When you mix red and green together, whaddya get? That’s right. Puke brown. With greenish flecks. The color was just… wrong. Bad wrong. You think about taste in a recipe. Perhaps while baking you think about leavening. But you forget about color, about scent and about texture. Or rather, I did. This one had like 5/7 correct. That is, er, not enough.
Still I sallied on. Lots of foods go through ugly duckling stages. And hey, were we so shallow that we wouldn’t eat food just because it tasted red and looked brown? Well, maybe. I started coming up with a list of people who were known to be polite, regardless of provocation. You know, possible future jam-gift recipients.
Step 4: But how does it look in practical applications?
A great joy in life is mopping up hot jam with fresh bread. The moment of truth arrived. I have 8 jars of this stuff. Would this be my stocking stuffer at Christmas to the long-suffering? Would it be so bad I should just pour it out here and now? Had I discovered a new culinary delight, the likes of which the world had never seen? It was the moment of truth.
And it was… pretty good? Not bad? Probably better than the jam you get at Denny’s in the little square Smucker’s packages? Perhaps? If you’re into a sort of, er, greenish flavor overtone? And it doesn’t look quite as bad in the jar as in the pot, either.
Step 5: Make other people eat it
I didn’t invite anyone to dinner tonight. No, I rather informed them that they were eating my food. Unless they had a better idea, which I knew they didn’t. I didn’t invite someone who would give me a polite platitude, but rather someone who would tell it to me like it is. I got a mixed reaction – I got neither a flat rejection, nor a subtle request to go home with a jar.
So, all in all, probably a B- effort. That’s below the level I’d need to repeat the experiment.
What did we learn from all this?
1) It’s easy to harvest too much Japanese knotweed, but no one cares if you do
2) Maybe it would be good pickled. I liked the shape of the circles. Raw, it’s ok but nothing you’d ever crave. It is apparently very high in resveratrol, but I’m pretty sure the 2:1 sugar to weed ratio more than counterbalances that. Also, I’m pretty sure resveratrol is just an excuse to drink wine.
3) I actually liked it as a jam ingredient except for the critical failing of color. I am trying to think of a seasonal, local green fruit to pair it with. I thought of green grape (I think a sweeter pairing would be better than sour/sour). If you like mint, I think that would be a really interesting pairing (cut down on the sugar and make it a meat sauce). It might also go well in a pie. I’m thinking blueberry would overcome any green and balance it out. I have quite a bit set aside in the freezer, so I might actually try this latter option.
So friends! If you would like some extremely nutritious, hyper-local, small batch artesenal jam, let me know. I have seven jars currently looking for a home – first come, first served!
My plum tree has been on my mind a lot lately – as I wrote about last week. The kills of the last two winters have made my hypersensitive to this time of year. It’s a time of great hope and anticipation, and great fear. Will one of the first heralds of the spring be a white-decked lady, a debutante of the back yard effulgent in lacy buds? Or will the last jealous grasps of winter shear off her bloom yet again, like some jealous Disney villain? And just how cold does March need to be to kill summer’s hope?
I thought we might have escaped this year, but then the overnight forecast showed itself unkindly. I fretted in the days leading up to this weekend, wondering if my tree would make it. I found this very useful chart, upon which I anchored my fears. The temps were supposed to get down to 10 degrees. I have no idea what my backyard microclimate is. I’m not really sure what the budding stages are, but I am decided that bud swell seemed like the closest option. Even so, that looked to me like a significant killing frost – taking out maybe 50% of my buds? If only I could get the temps up for a little bit?
Adam and I swapped links on smudge pots and fans. I definitively ruled out renting a helicopter as a solution. (That’s actually a thing.) I am still not super sure I understand how fans raise temperatures, even though I read several articles on it. It also wasn’t clear to me how many degrees swing you could get using some of these techniques – and I needed quite a few degrees. But I couldn’t just sit back and do nothing and watch my plums die AGAIN! They deserve a chance!
My husband loves me dearly. He’s so patient with my insanity. After careful thinking, I decided our propane heater was too dangerous to leave running unattended – even out in the backyard in the snow. But we have this electric oil-filled space heater, see. It’s gentle heat – so no chance of fire. I’m not sure if it was enough heat, or if it could possibly make a difference. Still, under the waning light, we set up the space heater under the tree, hoping the cement wall would reflect the heat and help it stay warm.
Adam cooked up the idea to use insulation on the other side of the heater to further guide the warmth tree-ward. So he chopped up some staves, staple-gunned them to the insulation, and pounded them into the frozen soil. All without wearing a sweater, of course. We New Englanders basically give up on winter garments as a regular thing about this time of year, due to being sick of wearing them.
I have no idea if it worked. The buds all look the same, of course. The forecast shows the end of the killing frost (or at least it’s five degrees warmer tonight). The forecast looks quite chilly. The highs don’t break out of the 40s for the rest of the month. (By comparison, it got up to 70 in February.) But if April comes and goes and the green leaves break out and there were no blossoms – we’ll know that winter won despite our best efforts.
Many of you are familiar with my age-long quest to make Damson Plum Jam. It’s been six years now that I’ve had a plum tree in my yard, waiting for that magic year when the winter wouldn’t destroy the entire region’s stone fruit crop (it has the last two winters in a row), when my tree was mature enough, when those stupid cut-worms were off-timing so that I could FINALLY get some plums off my tree.
Friends, I have terrible news.
I’ve been keeping an eagle-eyed watch on my plum tree this year, largely due to the complete kills from the last two years. When the end of February hit and the weather was so warm, my plum tree started getting ideas about it possibly being spring. This is what’s killed my harvest the last two years. So I checked on bud progression every day, willing it to take it slow and not try to grow up too fast. (Parenting and plums have more in common than you think.) And I noticed this weird black stuff. I didn’t think too much of it. Trees have galls and weird things all the time. Surely this was just a weird thing. I poked at it. It seemed very hard, and it didn’t crack off. I resolved to look up what it was “later”.
Later arrived Sunday, in my survey of the state of blooms as we batten down for our third Nor’Easter in like 10 days. (Starting Tuesday. UGH.) I finally Googled “plum black knot” and the results curdled the pit of my stomach. It was like eating prunes, only I don’t have any prunes because I don’t have any plums and also I kind of like prunes.
Black knot is a fungal disease that strikes fear in the hearts of owners of plum trees. It doesn’t matter if they are edible plums or the decorative, landscaping variety, the trees could be fatally affected.
It seems so unfair! This tree has yet to bear a single plum! I don’t even know what a damson tastes like! I’ve been nurturing it for 7 years now. And now this! A number of sources were like “Yeah, if your tree has this you should probably just get rid of it.” Noooo!!!
With the thaw coming any day now, and the return of the warmer weather likely to happen SOMETIME in the next two weeks (please please please) Adam and I went out to deal with it immediately. If we were going to do this, completely and early was our best strategy. Maybe we can stop the spread to the other branches? There were six galls, but only six. I was still in my church dress. We ravaged the limbs of the quiescent tree with ruthless branch clippers. Limb after limb, studded with incipient buds, was severed and dropped onto the snowbanks below. We lost the second largest stem of the tree. This isn’t a great time to prune, either, since right now the tree is susceptible to more infections from these scars we inflicted. It feels like a long shot. Did we buy the tree time to at least have a few plums first? Is is a lost cause? Am I forever condemned to go damson plum jamless?
On Friday night at 6 pm, I stumbled in the door after a long week at work. There was no pie starter. There was no dinner plan. The house was unclean. Not a single pie had been made. I wrote a list of what needed to be done in the next 18 hours and stared it it with dismay.
By 7:30 my parents had taken the kids out to dinner, my husband was a dervish of cleaning efficiency and I had both the lard and butter pie starter cooling in the freezer. And when 1:59 pm hit on Saturday, I was ready. I’d made six pies: lemon meringue, blueberry, pecan, two chicken pot pies & a moussaka. Some people (Adam) quibbled about whether moussaka is really a pie. But, it’s my party and I’ll pie if I want to. The house was clean and all things party-ready. These are the miracles of Piemas and beloved helpful relatives.
I think I say this after every one of my fake holidays, but this was a particularly fine Piemas. There were many (many!) pies, but I think we actually ate more of them than usual. I wonder how many kilacalories were consumed in my house on Saturday? Lots. Lots and lots. There were vegan pies. There were meat-rich pies. There were pies of impeccable character and origin, such as apple pies. There were pies that showed that my friends are geniuses. Evil geniuses. Somehow five large pizzas were also demolished.
The conversation was also a particularly fine vintage. There were all sorts of connections made across slices – people with shared interests, people with shared professions, people who only see each other every four months at our parties, people who had never met before. We talked about backing up log trucks. My parents told embarrassing stories about me. There were board games a-plenty. The conversation ended on a particularly liberal arts note with an animated discourse on the nature of evil and whether virtue can be taught.
It was a little unfair of the universe to make this the daylight savings weekend, though. Of all the mornings to lose an hour of sleep before church, this was a rough one.
There are few things I feel as fortunate in as in the people who populate my life. I feel like I’m surrounded by a richness of amazing folks. The people in my life are funny, kind, thoughtful, intelligent, caring, RSVP consistently to parties, and are phenomenal cooks. (They also have passionate and divergent ideas about Oxford commas, which made me edit that sentence no fewer than 4 times.) In the still of the night after the last merry-maker has gone home, I often fall asleep feeling like I’ve won the lottery in the greatest wealth of all – friendship.
To all who celebrated with me this weekend – thank you. To all who could not be there – you were missed. To all who wished they could be there – I wish so too. May you all find as much joy and merriment in your lives as a sequence of made-up holidays supported by enthusiastic friends has brought to mine.
Valediction to a Cutting Board
by Adam Flynn
A cutting board, alone it sat
Abandoned on my cold, cold porch.
A brown cenotaph, long and flat
Lurking yet with quiet reproach.
Oh why then was it not retrieved?
What weighty judgement was laid o’er
That gave no option for reprieve
And left it lying by my door?
Or worse, a more ignoble fate –
Was Lethe’s cup instead to blame?
Did feast, and drink, and hours late
Rob sweet Mnemosyne of her name?
So may your heart of stone be moved
And claim this prize if yours it be.
For certainly it may be proved,
It really don’t belong to me!