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Honeydial

What time is it?

Time to be thankful for a surprise gift of honey. The jar is 1/100 of the honey harvest of a hobby beekeeper whose hives are in the forest. Despite the loss of half of his colony over the colder than normal winter, his hives have bounced back and he has had a bumper crop of honey.

Time to wonder at the discovery of the kunstGarten. What a delight to have found a paradisal refuge within a city under permanent construction. It is no longer rose season so I couldn’t appreciate the full splendor of the 160 different varieties of roses lovingly cultivated in the garden, but it abounds with vegetables, fruits, and herbs, including my beloved rue. A place to stop and smell the myrtle, to wile away the hours in the library, which boasts a collection of around 4000 books on gardening and plants.

Time to be excited about the metamorphosis of blossoms into achenes on the buckwheat in my garden. It has been almost two months since I planted the seeds, and I had no idea what to expect. It looks like there will be a buckwheat harvest this year!

Time to reflect on the way this blog has developed over the past 10 weeks and 20 entries. Like gardening and cooking, writing is a creative process often motivated by a desire to experiment and to play with raw material, be it words or plants. My commitment to write twice a week has introduced a new rhythm into my life, one that I plan on keeping. Ideas continue to be fruitful and multiply, though time stubbornly remains finite and thereby a limiting factor. In the upcoming weeks, there will be some changes, including a much-needed revision of the About page and the addition of a library and other pages.

And finally…time to thank you, faithful reader: where would this blog be without you?

Solarium melongena, better known in English as eggplant (or aubergine, or brinjal), is the only nightshade growing in most vegetable gardens that did not originate in the Americas. Tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes all spread from west to east. Eggplant, however, was first cultivated in India before its range was extended by the Arabs to include the lands around the Mediterranean Sea. Europeans north of the Alps were initially very wary of this fruit, believing it caused insanity, calling it mala insana, or mad apple.

Though a staple vegetable in Indian cuisine, in the Ayurvedic tradition it is classified as a tamasic substance (like tobacco, alcohol, and garlic) that benefits neither the mind nor the body, withdrawing energy and clouding the powers of reason. In fact, eggplant is related to tobacco and contains nicotine, though in much smaller amounts: you would have to eat 9 kilos of eggplant to ingest the amount of nicotine in one cigarette.

Three American presidents are associated with eggplant. President Thomas Jefferson introduced eggplant to the United States, importing seeds from Europe and sowing them at Monticello. President Andrew Johnson’s favorite food was eggplant stuffed with tomatoes, onions, breadcrumbs, and celery, while President Warren G. Harding liked his sliced, baked, and marinated in mayonnaise, vinegar, lemon juice, Worcestershire and chili sauce.

As for me, I like eggplant caviar, pasta with eggplant and fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, eggplant parmesan, ratatouille, and the following casserole.

Eggplant casserole with creamy tomato-walnut sauce

Ingredients

1 kilo (2.2 lbs) eggplant, peeled and sliced into thin rounds or rectangles

Olive oil

2 onions, diced

3-5 garlic cloves, minced

3 tomatoes, diced

2 ts nutmeg

Fresh basil

2 Tbs crème fraîche

4 Tbs ground walnuts

300-400 g cheese of your choice (I have used a mixture of Topfen and fresh sheep’s cheese as well as just mozzarella )

Fry the eggplant in the olive oil until cooked through. Transfer to a large rectangular baking dish.

Sauté the onions and garlic until translucent. Add the tomatoes, nutmeg, and basil, cooking several minutes until the tomatoes are done. Stir in the crème fraîche and walnuts.

Spread the sauce over the eggplant. Top with the cheese.

Bake at 200°C (400°F) for 20-25 minutes.

Normally I am not prone to fits of nostalgia, but today I was overcome by a wave of longing for the summers of my college years. It was early afternoon and I was sitting at a cafe on one of my favorite squares. The young woman at the table next to me was at the beginning of a thick book of verse. Well-acquainted with the pleasure of starting a new book on a beautiful summer day, unencumbered by any appointments or responsibilities, I shared what I imagined must be her excitement and delight. It was when she lit her cigarette and the smoke drifted toward me that visions of summers fairly long past emerged, summers spent reading, writing, longing for a future in which everything would be somehow different and better, passing the time with my coterie of fellow students and cafe fixtures, many of whom were graduate students and thus older, many of whom were smokers.

Before the uniquely and peculiarly American rite of passage that is your 21st birthday, going out with friends that are older is problematic and you need to find a good strategy. Mine was to go a more elegant bar than most in the university town I was in and to order a more sophisticated drink than the beer that most undergrads swig. Many a summer night – both before and after the pivotal moment of my 21st birthday – was spent drinking glasses of port at Cafe Montmartre with various members of my coterie, who found it amusing that I was never, ever carded while I was underage. The taste of port still has the power to evoke memories of this period of time, memories of joyful banter, intense discussions, and significant friendships.

Recommended reading: On nostalgia, see Chapter Two of Kundera, Milan. Ignorance.

My first post included buckwheat but did not provide an introduction to one of my totem plants, which I am cultivating on my balcony this year. Fagopyrum esculentum (syn. Fagopyrum sagittatum) originated in Nepal. It then spread east to China, where it is considered to be a yang-promoting food in traditional Chinese medicine that warms the body, and Japan, where it is used to make luck-bringing soba noodles.

The Mongols brought it with them to the European part of Russia, after which buckwheat became a staple in Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish cuisine. Its range continued to expand westward. The Dutch planted it in their colonies in North America, where it became the flour of choice for pancakes, or flapjacks. I started making pancakes with buckwheat flour when I was in college, gobbling them down with maple syrup on many a weekend.

Buckwheat grows quickly, bearing fruit within three months. The stem starts out green and then turns red. A five-petalled flower yields a triangular achene resembling a beech nut, which when ground can be used for flour. The English word buckwheat comes from the Dutch word boecweite, literally beech wheat, and the standard German word Buchweizen has the same meaning. Before it can be used as a comestible, the achene must be hulled, after which it has the status of a groat. The dried hulls can be used to fill pillows.

The dried leaves contain rutin, which strengthens the capillaries, improving circulation and ameliorating varicose veins. Another active ingredient is trytophan, an amino acid which promotes sleep and reduces nervousness.

Besides being good for you, buckwheat is also good for the earth. As green manure, it delivers phosphorus to depleted soils, thriving in sandy and acidic soil. No fertilizer is necessary. In fact, buckwheat plants will not produce fruit if they are fertilized.

As a fan of buckwheat, I find myself in the company of the likes of Soren Kierkegaard, Mark Twain, and Benjamin Franklin. Perhaps it is no coincidence that I live in the buckwheat belt of Europe. Sterz, porridge made of buckwheat flour, is common on both sides of the Austrian-Slovene border in Styria (Steiermark/Štajerska). South in Slovenia there are buckwheat and cheese dumplings called štruklji. Not far away in South Tirol you can feast on pizzocheri. As summer continues to wane and winter approaches, there will be more recipes with buckwheat.

At the moment, however, fresh fruit is still abundant. Bilberry season continues, and honey is plentiful too. So it is time for…

Bilberry Buckwheat Honeycake

90 g (1/3 cup) honey

3 eggs

120 g (1 cup) flour

30 g (1/3 cup) ground almonds

1 ts baking powder

a pinch of salt

125 g melted butter

3 Tbs milk or cream

250 g (2 cups) bilberries or blueberries

In a large bowl, beat the honey and eggs together.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, ground almonds, baking powder, and salt.

Add the dry ingredients to the honey-egg mixture. Pour in the butter and milk. Finally, add the bilberries.

Bake 30-40 minutes at 180°C (350°F).


Recommended reading: “A World of Buckwheat” in Goldstein, Darra. The Winter Vegetarian.

Giuseppe Arcimbaldo (1527-1593), a court portraitist who served 3 Hapsburg kings in both Vienna and Prague, is best known for his paintings which depict a human head using fruit, vegetables, animals, and other natural objects that are related to the subject of the painting. For example, Water (1566).

Ratatouille is a dish made of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, garlic, and onion stewed in olive oil with various herbs. It arose in the area near Nice at the end of the eighteenth century.

Both Arcimbaldo paintings and ratatouille are composed of disparate elements that retain their distinct form.

Ratatouille à l’Arcimbaldo

3 Tbs. olive oil

1 onion, diced

3-5 garlic cloves, minced

1 eggplant, diced

1 ts salt

1-2 ts cumin

½ ts cinnamon

¼ – ½ ts cayenne pepper

black pepper

several sprigs of savory

1 zucchini, diced

a handful of cherry tomatoes from the garden

fresh basil

125 g fresh sheep or goat cheese, crumbled

150 g (1 cup) couscous

Sauté the onions and garlic in the olive oil until translucent. Add the eggplant, salt, spices, and savory and cook covered until the eggplant is tender, about 10 minutes.

Add the zucchini and tomatoes and cook another 10 minutes until tender. While the vegetables are cooking, prepare the couscous. Bring 125 ml (1 cup) water to a boil. Add the couscous. Cover, remove from heat, and let sit 5 minutes.

When the couscous is done, add to the stew. Mix in chopped fresh basil and the cheese.

Nothing more than mushroom identification develops the powers of observation.” – John Cage

My powers of observation are woefully inadequate; the only mushroom I feel comfortable identifying and gathering is the golden chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius). Its sometimes vibrant orange color forms a distinct contrast against the brown earth.These wild mushrooms often grow in symbiotic harmony with beech, spruce, and fir trees and contribute to the health of the trees. Gathering mushrooms is limited by law in the interest of preserving the balance of ecosystems. You are allowed to gather up to 2 kilos per person per day, which seems like a fair amount. A recent gift of much less than 2 kilos of chanterelles kept me busy cleaning, slicing, and sautéing last week.

In Austria, chanterelles are called Eierschwammerln, literally “egg sponges”, and indeed they soak up butter and cream as their name indicates. They also pair well with eggs. Surprisingly enough, Die Prato doesn’t mention them, describing button mushrooms, morels, and truffles instead. However, chanterelles can be substituted for any of these mushrooms in the recipes for soups and sauces.

The readers of this blog who grew up during the Reagan years will remember a series of books for young readers written in the second person. At the bottom of each page, you had to make a choice about what came next. Well, today I offer you a choice of what final form your chanterelles will assume.

Choose your own adventure 186: Kitchen Full of Wild Mushrooms

You gather the following ingredients and get ready to cook with them in your kitchen.

1 Tbs butter

½ onion

a handful of parsley, chopped

2 handfuls of chanterelles, cleaned, rinsed, the larger ones sliced

2 Tbs heavy cream

salt and pepper to taste

You melt the butter in a pan and sauté the onions until translucent. Then you add the parsley and chanterelles, cooking them until they have shrunk and given off some water. Add the cream and continue to cook.

If you decide you feel like pasta, go to A.

If you have a taste for eggs, go to B.

A. Pasta ai finferli

You cook pasta in salted water. When it is done, you mix the pasta with the chanterelle sauce. You sit down to eat the pasta with good bread, a salad, and a glass of wine, ready to enjoy yet another delicious meal.

THE END

B. Scrambled eggs with chanterelles

You beat two eggs together with a splash of milk. You add the egg-milk mixture to the chanterelles, stirring and cooking until the eggs are as scrambled as you like them. When you take your first bite of the meal you prepared, you congratulate yourself on a job well done and marvel at how well the taste of eggs and chanterelles go together.

THE END

(You read both endings, didn’t you? Ah, how we all cheated with CYOA books!)

The week-long gap between posts was due to a trip to Brussels, home of the Atomium and Arno Hintjens, capital of a kingdom that had a king who agreed NOT to be king for a day, in short a special place where part of its population is celebrating independence from the Netherlands today. I attended the kick-off of Time Inventors’ Kabinet, a project spanning the next two years whose goals include creating new units of time using wind clocks and observing the passage of time in urban gardens. The culinary was tangential to the focus of my visit, yet my attention is inevitably drawn to food and its production, and Brussels did not disappoint.

On the first evening of my visit, I tried kriek, a cherry-flavored beer made of lambic and sour cherries (including their pits), at À la Mort Subite, a cafe whose name means sudden death. However, I survived the experience, and on the last evening, I ate penne with hazelnuts and gorgonzola at an amazing bistro named after one of my favorite birds. What more can you ask for than delicious food, good company, inspiring conversation, and fabulous music? The bistro had a jukebox with an incredible selection of ’45s – remember those?

In between, I visited rooftop gardens and an art foundation. Here is a motley selection of pictures of gardens and plants.

I stayed at OKNO and had the pleasure of spending time in its peaceful garden. The berries below I have yet to identify. What are they?

Bees make their home in the hives pictured below. I was lucky enough to get a jar from the latest honey harvest.


The hive above is a top bar hive without frames, which allows the bees to make comb as they like. The hive below is a more traditional model.

The following garden atop an old abandoned brick brewery is in its second year of existence. Unfortunately, the building is condemned and the future of the garden is uncertain.

I think I’ll try zucchini or squash in a sack next year.

I stumbled across this lovingly planted flower bed in the middle of the city.

These thistles are from the prairie of the disturbing Verbeke Foundation, whose peaceful grounds are full of tranquil, natural landscapes and honeybees while inside the building it showcases ethically questionable art making use of animal carcasses and other “ecological” material.

Finally, if Simon and Garfunkel are correct and the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, perhaps we should heed the following advice spotted in Métro Parvis de Saint-Gilles:

If you want honey, support bees!