Catbird Griddle

  (Angelica, New York)
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Food Scavenger July: Cukes and Zukes

I had planned to write July's food scavenger column about wild black raspberries, river mint, and pineapple weed (western NY's version of chamomile)--all currently ripe on roadsides and sun-dappled riverbanks all around us. But then I realized I was off-track. While these foods are ostensibly cost-free, raspberry brambles aren't exactly great for those summertime legs, and the herbs don't exactly feed the family.

So the plan has changed.If you're scavenging for food this month in western NY, your best bet isn't the woods or roadside ditches, it's the pickup loaded with bushel baskets jutting out of a driveway or the farmstand with a handmade sign out front:

ZUCCHINIS, 5 for $1

That's right: the garden glut is upon farmers and backyard gardeners across this land and if you're looking for cheap, healthy food in substantial quantities, you can find it without getting thorny or dirty or bitten by mosquitoes.

Of course, if you happen to be one of those people whose garden is suddenly overrun with oblong crops threatening to morph into full-sized baseball bats overnight, you are rolling your eyes right now. Last night, like me, you ate summer squash improv #212 (herbed zephyr squash crepes, in my case: grated onion and squash, garlic, olive oil and thyme sauteed and wrapped with a pinch of parmesan cheese in a simple chive crepe that is easier to prep than a pancake), and you have zucchini bread in the oven as you read this (Ithaca's Moosewood's recipe is our favorite).

But if you are reading this and you aren't staggering under such bounty, you can easily share in the wealth. Here are a few quick, super-easy, inexpensive recipes to help you serve up the fresh, healthful food you've scrounged for almost nothing.

Zucchini Pan "Pizza" (kids will fall for this--or ours did anyway)

Olive oil
Zucchinis and/or summer squash sliced in 1/4 inch rounds (enough to cover your pan with two layers)
Cheese (parmesan or cheddar work great)
Salt & Pepper to taste
  • Directions: In a large frying pan (that has a lid or something you can use to cover it), saute zucchini slices in olive oil until they reach desired tenderness. Sprinkle with salt & pepper. Distribute evenly across the pan, sprinkle with cheese, cover and wait. When the cheese has melted, it's ready to serve hot (put the frying pan right on the table to maintain heat).

Cold Cucumber Soup (we refrigerate this in a juice pitcher and serve it in paper cups at family picnics)

3-4 large cucumbers, peeled or not (depending on your preference)
2 c. chicken broth (bouillon works fine for this)
2 t. curry powder
salt & pepper to taste
2-3 c. lowfat plain yogurt
  • Directions: Process cucumbers until smooth in a food processor (do this in batches in you need to). Transfer ground cucumber to a large bowl, unless it still fits in your processor, in which case, you can continue to blend in the processor. Add broth, curry powder, salt & pepper, and yogurt and combine. Chill and serve.

Cucumber-Mint Raita (a cold, refreshing Indian salad often served with spicy foods)

1 small onion finely chopped or grated (approx. 1/4 c.)
2-3 cucumbers chopped (2 c.)
1 bunch mint chopped (maybe 1/4 c.), leaving some aside for garnish
2-3 c. lowfat plain yogurt (Greek yogurt works well here too) stirred until smooth
optional: 2 t. cumin seeds
  • Directions: Combine all ingredients in a bowl, garnish with mint "confetti," chill.

Purple Passion: Provençal lavender fields in Western NY?

Gardening is often a mutual accommodation of the crop and the gardener. Our lavender plants, just starting to bloom now, remind me of that truth. The genus Lavandula is native from North Africa and the Mediterranean to southwest Asia and India. If we think of domesticated lavender, our strongest association might be with fields blooming under the hot, dry skies of the Provence region of France. In fact, the extensive cultivation of lavender in southern France is fairly recent—only since the 1920s. Over the preceding century, lavender perfumes had been derived from blossoms collected mostly from wild plants. These had rapidly colonized the rocky hills that were just as rapidly being abandoned by French peasants migrating to industrial jobs in the cities.

So growing lavender in cool, moist western New York, our chief concession was to plant it on our rockiest knoll with a southerly slope. Actually, our friend Hope had started the plants in the comfort of her sun room. In May 2008, we’d transplanted them to our garden, where, despite our pampering, half died over that first year. So in 2009, we transplanted the survivors to the hard rock pile. Our problem was the strips between the rows, which were too rough to be tamed by any lawnmower blade. Our solution was to cultivate with tractor and disk. But even as we picked the largest stones after each cultivation, the next pass of the disk would levitate another crop of rocks. And the taproots of dock and burdock wedged themselves among the stones, where even the disk could not dislodge them. Hoeing and hand-pulling were our unenviable options, and were effective only after the rocks had been lubricated by a good rainfall.

Young NY lavender plants.

Our weedy, stony lavender plot is rarely photogenic. But after our recent rains, we’ve cleared two thirds of the plot of almost all of its weeds. We proudly present a carefully-cropped view of lavender in early bloom. In the foreground is the lavandin (“French lavender”) variety, Dilly-Dilly. The upper part of the row is the hardy “English lavender” variety, Munstead. Our efforts are repaid with a sprig of fresh lavender in our lemonade, as we rest our weary backs. And contemplate a lavender-rosemary-apricot glaze on chicken breasts—for dinner.


Wild Foods Scavenger Hunt: June

Eating local food doesn't always mean going to a farmers' market or growing your own. Forget clipping coupons if you want to save a few bucks on food: amazing and abundant wild food grows all around us. Even a roadside weed can prove to be a real (super cheap!) treat.

Last month we wrote about wild leeks, or ramps, but June has its own specialties. Here are two wonderful finds for food scavengers in Western New York, along with tips on how to enjoy them.

I. Lambsquarters

A big favorite back during the Great Depression (coincidentally), lambsquarters grow everywhere all summer in Upstate New York. Look for them generously volunteering themselves right in your own garden. While most of us yank lambsquarters out, its milky green leaves, picked young (June is their best month) it can be sweeter and more delicious than its cousin spinach. Rumor has it that it's also more nutritious than spinach.

To prepare lambsquarters as a green side for grilled steak or roasted chicken, try lightly steaming (as you would cook spinach), and then serving with a little butter, or saute in olive oil and garlic. Alternatively, you can use it as a substitute for spinach or Swiss chard in a soup, lasagna, herbed pasta (such as pesto), or casserole. You can also try them raw and use them in a green salad.

II. Black Locust Blossoms

(Black Locust photo by red.raleigh on Flickr)

It is a special time in late spring--not yet, but any day now!--when the black locusts bloom. You know the smell--you've only just started to drive your car with the windows open and then you drive through a pocket of sweet air and you know summer's coming soon.

The black locust isn't much to look at most of the year, but when it's in bloom it is covered with heavy clusters of sweet white blossoms. And the great news is that not only are these blossoms edible, they are heavenly to eat. The bad news is that the window for locust blossoms is narrow. When you see them, pick them! The brighter the yellow is on the white petals, the better the blossoms are to eat (older blossoms tend to be bitter).

There are many ways to eat locust blossoms (as a garnish on fruit or green salads, for example, or, if you're really inspired, homemade locust blossom ice cream is pure manna), but the best known and most marvelous is the locust blossom fritter. To prepare this, make pancake batter in your usual fashion and then dip sprigs of blossom into the batter and drop them on your hot griddle. Cook just as you would pancakes and serve with maple syrup, honey, or a sprinkle of powdered sugar.



Our Great Gardening Experiment 2010

The record high for today--May 19--is 91 degrees (1962). On this same date in 1984, however, Angelica saw temps dip below freezing. After the May we've had this year, we can only cross our fingers for some of the fruit trees that were in full bloom during those plummeting nights a couple of weeks ago.

The good news is that Upstate New York's fertile soil, steady moisture, and relatively stable temperature make for great produce, in spite of its short growing season. Anyone who has ever flown over the Texas Panhandle, for example, knows just how lucky we are. Who could have thought, back in the 1910s when the southern Plains States were homesteaded, that they would ultimately grow their crops only in circles?

While severe drought and extreme heat are rare for growers around here, late Spring frosts sure are reliable. This year, since we're hoping to have salad produce as early as we can get it for our new salad bowl lunches, we are experimenting with growing tunnels.


Read the rest of this article and other thoughts on Western New York gardening. 

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