I have the good fortune to live near a peony farm. It's no ordinary farm and their peonies are anything but ordinary. In fact, at this time of year when the plants are in full regalia, the gardens are aptly referred to as "Peony Heaven".
Cricket Hill Garden is a world-renowned grower of rare Chinese tree peonies (Paeonia suffruticosa). The owners Kasha and David Furman were among the first to import the plants into the US and have grown hundreds of cultivars over the past twenty years on their seven acre farm. In conversations with David, it's apparent that he is a man completely fulfilled by a career that grew out of his obsession with the Chinese culture and a passion for their national flower. He speaks freely of his travels through China and the political tribulations of gaining permission to import the plants from a country that-- at the time-- was embarrassed by the sensual nature of the flowers.
Tree peonies do indeed arouse the senses. They unfurl their luminous petals slowly and luxuriously to reveal their flamboyant centers. The flowers are as large as a dinner plate, smell heavenly, and bear fanciful names such as "Purple Butterfly in the Wind" and "Green Dragon Lying on a China Ink Stone". At about 100$ per plant, they are expensive, but as they are known to live hundreds of years, I see them as an investment in the future.
One of my favorite salads involves shaved bulb fennel, fresh herbs, and olives, simply dressed with lemon juice and walnut oil. The addition of silky wisps of salami or a fresh tangy chevre rounds it out to a meal.
The ether anethole is responsible for the sweet (up to 13 times sweeter than sugar) anise flavor of fennel. Many of the tender annual herbs are united by this aromatic: basil, dill, tarragon, chervil, and hyssop all partake in anise love. Anethole is widely used as a flavoring for liquors. Because it is less soluble in water than in ethanol, it will produce a spontaneous microemulsion, a phenomenon known as "ouzo effect" when water is added-- turning a clear solution milky white.
A deli slicer makes shaving fennel a breeze. I'm always fascinated by the forms that fall off the slicer. A cross-section of the heart, with its long gangly arms attached, look like alien sea creatures. The end-cuts reveal a succession of delicate petal shapes.
Typically, the shavings go directly into an ice bath to keep them crisp and hydrated. The swelling that occurs when their cells fill with water further distorts the shapes.
I knew what I was hoping for when I submerged a handful of the petal shavings into chilled rhubarb juice, but I wasn't sure that it would happen. A few hours later, I nearly squealed with delight as I lifted the petals and watched them fall onto a plate.
Pale pink. Curled and cupped. All I could see was peonies.
While considering other worthwhile applications for flavored beer/soda outside of the beverage realm, tempura batter became glaringly obvious.
Tempura batter is all about texture. It should be light and shatteringly crisp. The best way that I know to achieve this is with a dry mix that consists of 1 part baking powder (10g), 1.5 parts cornstarch (15g), and 10 parts flour (100g) mixed with 20 parts (200g) carbonated water.
The carbonated water, which can be club soda, seltzer, or even beer, is mixed in at the last minute for three reasons:
1- The carbonation (carbon dioxide) bubbles inflates the batter but dissipates quickly.
2- Liquid activates the alkaline and acid in the baking powder to produce carbon dioxide gas that further lightens the batter. Part of the reaction takes place upon mixing and part is activated by applying heat.
3- The batter should be cooked before the flour granules fully absorb water molecules (gelation), which would inhibit crispness.
For these reasons, tempura batter should be mixed just before dipping and frying to produce optimum crispness. Keeping a dry mix on hand and being familiar with the proper viscosity of the batter makes it practically effortless to mix a fresh batch for each order.
Tempura was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese and adapted from the Portuguese "tempero", meaning "to season". Contrarily, tempura batter is typically neutral in flavor. Using spruce beer in place of the carbonated water was an opportunity to introduce flavor into the batter. The spruce flavor was not as pronounced as I had hoped-- starches have a tendency to mute flavor-- but it did push through and produced a more dimensional tempura.
I was curious if the yeast in the spruce beer would have an effect on the batter. Logically, it shouldn't--yeast is slow to activate-- but there was something irresistibly brittle about this batch of tempura that warrants further exploration.
This also got me thinking about all of the commercially available sodas that could be used to flavor tempura.
Limonetto/shrimp... Orange Slice/carrot... Dr Pepper/duck... Root beer/Vidalia onion... anyone?
The new growth on the spruce trees is worlds apart from the mature needles that I worked with last winter. These are so tender and brightly flavored that they might as well have come from a different plant. As with the peach leaves, this serves as a reminder to taste and enjoy plants at different stages of growth.
Now that the peach leaf beer is nearly gone, I thought I would give spruce beer a try.
Spruce beer is nothing new--it's an old-timey beverage enjoyed by past generations in the northern US and Canada. The recipes that I found called for adding spruce to malted barley and hops or for sweetening with molasses, which I was sure would distract from the fresh flavor that I was trying to preserve, so I stuck with the sugar, citrus, yeast and infused water method. Again, the results were more like a dry soda than a malty beer and strangely reminiscent of gin and tonic. Actually, not so strange--juniper and spruce share piney terpenes.
Revisiting spruce in the spring calls for an entirely new palette--one that's as fresh and crisp as the feathery young tips. Rhubarb rose to the occasion.
The first spring after we moved onto our property, I was delighted to find a patch of rhubarb growing in the deep shade under a Catalpa tree. I held out for a big harvest, imagining a procession of pies, crisps, and cobblers, but the stalks never reached more than a foot in height or grew any thicker than a pencil. I knew that they were stunted by lack of light and thought about transplanting them, but I've come to love the unique tender snap of these slender whips that are not too puckery--even when raw.
I've always thought that the secret to a good cocktail is balance. That's not to say that I haven't had my share of cloy drinks-- I have. They served their purpose but when I want something more than an alcohol buzz, I turn to luminous flavors.
Rhubarb, with its citrus-like tartness, cooked with a judicious amount of sugar, makes a balanced syrup that when combined with gin and spruce beer produces an agreeable and refreshing cocktail. The colors may look like they belong to a winter holiday, but it tastes like the threshold of summer.
When harvesting spruce tips, keep in mind that essentially you are pruning the plant and encouraging branching. Prune evenly, around all sides of the plant, to maintain symmetry.
Rhubarb leaves contain toxins and should not be consumed.
I had a request for baba au rhum recently and it triggered a memory of serving them with peaches and mascarpone. It's a lovely memory and with peach leaf on my mind, it's a likely pairing.
The progeny of kugelhopf and ancestor of the savarin, babas are a type of yeast cake. They have the flavor and richness of brioche but the more refined texture of genoise. Like genoise, the baked cakes are soaked with alcohol-spiked syrup, though babas are typically flavored with rum.
These cakes were a good vehicle to test the flavor of peach leaf in a baked good. The flavor was introduced into the batter with peach leaf beer and milk making up the moisture. Chopped peach leaves were folded in before baking and the flavor was further reinforced with a soaking in peach leaf syrup and dark rum.
This dish relates like a family reunion. Peaches are represented in various stages: the crystallized peach buds with their green almond crunch, the butterflied slices of ripe fruit, the creamy curd made from peach juice, and the benzaldehyde-flavored leaves. From the same family, almonds make up the crunchy praline along with burnt sugar, whose caramel flavor is echoed by the dark rum-soaked baba. The tangy creme fraiche is the friend who was invited to keep things interesting.
With work kicking into full gear, I'm left scrambling to get the garden ready for planting. As if my plate wasn't already overflowing, there's the added distraction of all the things that are blooming that I'm itching to play with.
The creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) were glorious this year. I had something special planned for them but an unrelenting schedule and three days of rain have left them in a pitiful state of mush.
Ditto for the lilacs.
Oh, well...there's always next year (the gardener's mantra).
I was, however, able to harvest some of the tender young peach leaves.
Last year I learned that there is a short window-- from the time that the blossoms drop until the fruit begins to set-- that the flavor of the leaves is the least bitter and most almond-like.
I was able to harvest enough leaves to make a few liters of peach leaf beer, using a recipe for ginger beer. It's really more like a soda: light, crisp, barely-sweet, with refreshing effervescence from the addition of yeast.
After a gratifying day of weeding and tilling, a small celebration was in order. There was a bottle of Vinho Verde calling my name. And the peach leaf beer was ready.
"The golden tide, the essence of this fine fair month ran, then gushed from the spout below, to be crocked, skimmed of ferment, and bottled in clean ketchup shakers, then ranked in sparkling rows in cellar gloom.
The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered."
~Ray Bradbury "Dandelion Wine"
As far back as I can remember, I've had a major crush on books.
As a child, I would enter the local library with the awe and reverence reserved for cathedrals. It was there that I would worship the written word; a place to receive the sacrament of ink on paper at the altar of ideas, imagination, and information.
Then, as now, books were magic carpets that transported me to worlds where anything and everything was possible. And I could be home in time for dinner.
I was eight or nine when I read Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. I have read it numerous times since to relive the wonder of childhood. It's a simple book; a semi-autographical collection of stories woven together into a strange and dreamy tale of an ordinary summer, filled with extraordinary moments, in a 12-year-old boy's life. It was an introduction to subtle and complex themes that revealed themselves like layers of an onion, with two in particular that keep me coming back:
The ecstatic awareness of being alive.
And the transubstantiating magic of dandelion wine.
In the book, dandelion wine is a metaphor for life itself; a prosaic weed transformed into a mystical elixir with the power to "change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in."
Having never tasted dandelion wine, I can only imagine its flavor will be sweet, slightly tart, mildly bitter. It may not turn out to be the most delicious of beverages, but I fully believe that on a cold wintry day, when I head down to the cellar and raise a glass to my lips, that the snow will melt, the sky will turn blue and--if only for a moment--it will be summer.
People who have the means and leisure to travel at whim often do so in pursuit of a passion. Some follow the sun, others follow food, music, art, or sports. Romantics follow their hearts.
Me, I would follow flowers.
At the top of my itinerary would be Japan in March. There you would find me, in a cherry blossom-induced delirium, standing like Julie Andrews on top of that mountain-- eyes up, arms outstretched; twirling like a dervish--reveling in a blizzard of cherry-pink petals.
The Japanese are serious about cherry blossoms (sakura) and the ancient custom of flower-viewing (hanami). The cherry-blooming forecasts (sakura zensen) are watched fervently and the occasion is observed with reverence and enthusiasm.
Cherries belong to the plant genus Prunus, and are a member of the large family Rosaceae, which includes other aromatic fruits such as almonds, peaches, plums, apricots, apples, pears, quince, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, loquats, and roses.
The flavor of cherries are defined by benzaldehyde (sour cherry, bitter almond) and coumarin (vanilla, sweet grass, hay).
There's a place just up the road from me that I make a point to visit at this time of year.
It's the kind of spot that embodies the bucolic scenery of rural New England.
There are pastoral rolling hills...
...moss-patinaed stone walls...
...ancient gnarled trees...
...steep stone steps...
...and a lake with tiny islands.
It's a magical place at any time of year, but for a few weeks in April it becomes an enchanted land of earth, water, stone, and daffodils.
Daffodils have an alluring aroma with sweet notes of honey, citrus, warm spice, and exotic fruit. However, they contain the alkaloids galanthamine and lycorine that render them highly toxic if consumed. Even deer won't touch them.