Violet Foraging

by Sarah Owens


The Violet by Jane Taylor

Down in a green and shady bed 
A modest violet grew;
Its stalk was bent, it hung its head,
As if to hide from view. 

And yet it was a lovely flower,
Its colors bright and fair;
It might have graced a rosy bower,
Instead of hiding there.

Yet there it was content to bloom,
In modest tints arrayed;
And there diffused a sweet perfume,
Within the silent shade.

Then let me to the valley go,
This pretty flower to see;
That I may also learn to grow
In sweet humility. 

Making syrups from floral bounty is one of my favorite ways to celebrate the seasons.  In the rush of spring, it is easy to miss the window for violet picking.  Now that the sun is finally showing itself amidst a lingering crisp air and the trees are revealing their displays of pink, white, and chartreuse despite April snow showers, I am setting foot in one of the most expansive landscapes of Brooklyn: The Greenwood Cemetery. 

Greenwood Cemetery 

Greenwood Cemetery 

Founded in 1838, these 478 aces are somewhat of a haven for Brooklynites in my neighborhood, with large specimens of trees and quiet sweeping views of the harbor.  I had been meaning all week to wander around at work looking for violets, the humble denizens of spring.  But as is usually the case when doing what you love as a career, a flurry of garden tasks often outweigh the chance to enjoy the nuances of ones labor.  So on a particularly sunny Saturday, I set foot along the botanically named paths of Greenwood looking for little purple blossoms. Elevated and a bit colder than many other parts of the borough, I was surprised to find that I was...early?!  There were carpets of little heart-shaped leaves covering the ground under the stately ash trees but their blossoms were still quite shy.  

Fraxinus americana or the white ash in full bloom, buzzing with bumble bee activity!

Fraxinus americana or the white ash in full bloom, buzzing with bumble bee activity!

Sure enough however, on the south-facing slopes nestled against the heat from the gravestones, were the first violets!  Waving their heads in the sunshine under the magnolias and ash trees in full bloom, I set to work trying to collect as many as I could, being mindful to leave a few in good wildcrafting practice. Violets are promiscuous little buggers, proliferating by seed as well as thuggish root systems, but it is always a good idea to try and find balance in collecting.  

Viola papilionacea responding to the warmth of the south-facing sun.

Viola papilionacea responding to the warmth of the south-facing sun.

I collected a few cups in a little bag on ice and returned home after visiting one of the many delicious and authentic Mexican joints of Sunset Park.  After scarfing my tacos placeros de longaniza, I set to work cleaning the blossoms.  Cleaning foraged flowers is a meditative activity that was perfect for my typical Saturday post-baking-spree daze.  

Cleaning violet flowers, necessary for making syrup.

Cleaning violet flowers, necessary for making syrup.

After removing their little green pips, I was left with only about a cup of petals.  No matter, it was enough to justify making syrup for a cake I had in mind.  I poured boiling water over them and left to soak overnight.  The next day I added sugar and heated in a bain marie until the syrup was formed.  

Violet blossoms soaking in a bath of hot water.

Violet blossoms soaking in a bath of hot water.

The result is a beautiful liquid perfect for adding to icing, mixing in cocktails, or pouring over panna cotta.  

Viola Syrup Recipe

15 g cleaned Viola petals
150 g boiling water
150 g caster sugar
1 ts. lemon juice

Collect and clean about a cup of flowers and place in a heat-proof bowl.  Boil the water and pour over petals. Cover and allow to sit overnight or for up to 24 hours.

In a bain marie, place petals, water, and sugar to taste and heat until dissolved.  Strain into a sterilized jar and add lemon to encourage a more lively hue.  Store in refrigerator for 2-3 weeks.       

 

Viola syrup with edible henbit and pepperweed. 

Viola syrup with edible henbit and pepperweed. 


Custom Cutting Boards

by Sarah Owens


Over the last four years, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's tree collection has been tested by record snow storms, hurricanes, micro bursts, and now construction.  What has sadly resulted is a ready supply of wood waiting to be turned into something beautiful and useful. 

The stately trees of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden make a striking contrast against spring crocus emergence.

The stately trees of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden make a striking contrast against spring crocus emergence.

The story of the cookbook I am writing is one of sourdough closely intertwined with inspiration from the seasons and specifically the 52 acres which I tend professionally on a daily basis.  It is difficult not to form attachments to our woody sentinels, resulting in a great sense of loss after succumbing to their inevitable but never timely death.  To pay homage, I have taken the opportunity to use some of their wood for props in shooting the cookbook.  

Our arborists are overwhelmed this spring with winter storm damage and capitol projects but thankfully had a few minutes to spare...

Our arborists are overwhelmed this spring with winter storm damage and capitol projects but thankfully had a few minutes to spare...

A few weeks ago, I was able to capture a few minutes of our very busy arborist's time to custom cut a few pieces that were lying around.  We walked through our stacks while he pointed out which pieces were specific trees he knew I appreciated and might make for beautiful cutting boards.

Alnus glutinosa has beautiful orange wood when oiled.  By keeping the bark intact, the character of the tree is not lost.

Alnus glutinosa has beautiful orange wood when oiled.  By keeping the bark intact, the character of the tree is not lost.

I chose three boards, including a long piece of one of my all-time favorite specimens of Alder.  Removed for 'capitol project purposes', this was perhaps one of the most beautiful Alders I had ever laid eyes upon.  It's smooth gray bark coated a strong and stately trunk that gave way to a balanced and sculptural canopy.  Each spring, it was laden with chestnut brown catkins, a rebellion against the chilly nights and sometimes freezing rain it encountered while trying to reproduce.  It was a tree that greeted you upon entering the southern gate and promised to be there upon your return until someone decided to end its life.  Its gorgeous warmly colored wood is now my choice cutting board, immortalized with each loaf that graces its surface.

Late winter catkins of Alnus glutinosa, blowing in the wind.

Late winter catkins of Alnus glutinosa, blowing in the wind.

Another piece was a lovely light colored ash.  Most trees in our ash collection were nearing the end of their lifespan before Hurricane Sandy hit in the fall of 2012.  I decided to cut a chunky handle and keep the deeply grooved bark.  

The wood of the Ash tree is pale but with a beautiful grain and bark.

The wood of the Ash tree is pale but with a beautiful grain and bark.

The third choice was a piece of Cedar of Lebanon, a large tree whose seed was collected in the Middle East and propagated specifically for the garden.  As it became shaded out by other trees over the years, the tree's root system became compromised.  With a combination of a micro burst in the autumn of 2010 followed by an extremely wet spring and high winds, it simply couldn't hold itself in the ground any longer. Sanded without any bark, this is perhaps the most intricately patterned grain of the three. I will perhaps use this one for presentation only, avoiding any knife marks!

A loaf of Khorasan Apricot Levain on the beautiful wood of the Alder tree.

A loaf of Khorasan Apricot Levain on the beautiful wood of the Alder tree.

It's important to use a natural, food-safe oil that will not go rancid.  Mineral oil or beeswax are good choices.

It's important to use a natural, food-safe oil that will not go rancid.  Mineral oil or beeswax are good choices.

I am on the hunt for some good beeswax (anyone want to trade bread for wax?!) but until then, mineral oil is my choice for satisfying the thirsty sanded wood.  Laden with bread or tartlets, I am so proud to add these to the kitchen not only for their simple beauty but for the history as well.  The mark of the hand and rustic flavor is kept in their presentation.  For me, using items on a daily basis that have this human connection to nature is pure pleasure.

 

 


Ancient Grains of Ecuador

by Sarah Owens


Before I started baking with a sourdough culture, I was one frustrated gastronome.  Ancient grains were (politely speaking) not something that settled well on my stomach.  After an acute attack, I tested negative for celiac disease and was instead treated (twice!) with antibiotics.  When I continued to have digestion problems as well as nutritional deficiencies and rheumatic symptoms, I did some extensive research.  I became enlightened of the often unreported complications of phytates in the daily diet and consequently my health changed for the better.

A crunchy loaf full of sprouted quinoa, chia, and amaranth as well as soaked oats and barley and pre-gelatinized corn.  Baked in a ceramic vessel in Cuenca, Ecuador.

A crunchy loaf full of sprouted quinoa, chia, and amaranth as well as soaked oats and barley and pre-gelatinized corn.  Baked in a ceramic vessel in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Phytates (sometimes referred to as phytic acid) are a way of protecting important nutrients for future plant generations.  These nutrients aren't available to us because they would rather be used to nourish new seedlings as opposed to feeding hungry humans.  Phytates hinder our digestion, ensuring that the valuable seed is passed ready to germinate.  If we were ruminants, we would produce the enzyme phytase that would help eliminate phytic acid.  

Grain including barley (cebada) and corn (maiz) sold for agricultural germination.

Grain including barley (cebada) and corn (maiz) sold for agricultural germination.

The harmful action of phytic acid doesn’t stop there.  Not only does it  present a digestion issue, it also chelates or binds with essential nutrients, inhibiting assimilation into your system.  All of that iron, magnesium, calcium, and zinc you thought you were getting from conventionally leavened whole wheat bread or ancient grains breakfast cereal?  You’re probably not absorbing much of it.  Studies have shown that a slice of white sourdough bread has more available nutrients as well as a lower glycemic index than a slice of conventionally leavened whole grain bread.  True story.

Crops including taro, amaranth, and maize, growing at the base of the Pumpapunga ruins in Cuenca Ecuador.

Crops including taro, amaranth, and maize, growing at the base of the Pumpapunga ruins in Cuenca Ecuador.

Sprouted wheat (trigo) sold at the Mercado 9 de Decembre in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Sprouted wheat (trigo) sold at the Mercado 9 de Decembre in Cuenca, Ecuador.

So how to harness the nutrition of ancient grains?  Other than soaking and/or sprouting, fermentation with a lactic acid culture found in sourdough will help to neutralize phytic acid. By lowering the pH and encouraging phytase enzyme activity, fermenting with sourdough has allowed me to harness the nutritonal power of ancient grains.  You can imagine my delight to be visiting a country that is teeming with variety in every mercado!

Quinoa and Amaranth growing in a demonstration garden at the ruins of Pumapungo archaeological site in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Quinoa and Amaranth growing in a demonstration garden at the ruins of Pumapungo archaeological site in Cuenca, Ecuador.

The beauty of Ecuador is that many selections of these sometimes low-yielding or climate-specific heirlooms can only be found here.   An added bonus is that Ecuador has had a somewhat ambiguous constitutional ban on GMO crops since 2008.  For a sometimes frustratingly dysfunctional country, the farmers and peasants value their genetic heritage and have been lobbying for protection.  Let's hope the pressure from the biotech industry doesn't change the current administration's mind.  For now, there is an amazing variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains that have been grown here unadulterated for millennia.  In what is currently the territory of Ecuador, the beginning of agriculture appears to have taken place 6,000 years ago in the Valdivia Culture of the Santa Elena Peninsula. 

Endless possibilities of ancient grains at the mercados in Ecuador.

Endless possibilities of ancient grains at the mercados in Ecuador.

Corn may be the 'grain' available with the most abundance of varieties.  The contribution of corn to the diet constituted an essential factor in the development of the Andean societies.  Numerous research points to the Central American Region as the area where corn originated.  Las Vegas on the Ecuadorian Coast is where the 8,000 year old remains of a corn in the process of domestication were discovered.  Later in Valdivia, a variety called Kcello ecuatoriana was discovered as being 4,300 years old.  

With the cultural history and rich soil that lends so well to growing nutritious non-GMO crops,  I have been playing around with everything I can get my hands on!  My only regret is that I don't have more room in my suitcase....

 

 

 

 


Siga No Más

by Sarah Owens


Before I landed in Cuenca, I was getting the impression that Ecuadorians have very particular opinions about regional differences.  People on the coast seemed almost offended that I was leaving them to spend a week in Cuenca.  "Cuenca? Una semana?!"  But life here is quite comfortable.  The slow Spanish dialect is soft on my gringa ears.  Amenities are easier to find and although the pace is more cosmopolitan, the attitude is still one of leisure and acceptance.  

Cuenca, Ecuador has beautiful colonial architecture and an accommodating attitude toward the many tourists and expats that populate the city. 

Cuenca, Ecuador has beautiful colonial architecture and an accommodating attitude toward the many tourists and expats that populate the city. 

A few days into my stay, I learned a new expression.  I had come home (again) with loads of fruits, veggies, eggs, and grains from the many mercados throughout the city.  A little shy to initiate cooking, I knew I would make a mess of the kitchen.  It's one thing to explore creativity in your own space...but to completely dominate the kitchen where you're renting a room for a few days?  I'm lucky to have such flexible hosts, allowing me to blend, grind, beat, grate, mix, and ferment my way through successes and failures in Ecuadorian cooking. I tried to time the splatters and flour clouds when they were out but inevitably they would return to continued stirring, tasting, and scribbling with furrowed brow.  Their response? "Siga No Más!" Keep Going!  Keep Moving!  This was basically a pass to continue with the mess making.  So I set to work.  

Cleaning the meat of the coconut. 

Cleaning the meat of the coconut. 

I had bought two large brown coconuts at the mercado.  The transaction went something like this:

Gringa: "Dos cocos por favor"
Merchant: "Dos cocos?!"
Gringa: "Si Senora! Dos cocos!"
Merchant: "Quatro dollares"
Gringa: "Quatro! Es muy caro!" 
Merchant: "Una coco?"

The eye of the coconut storm...

The eye of the coconut storm...

Stubbornly, I bought two even though the wise merchant was trying convince me otherwise.   I should have listened to her passive aggressive Cuencano advice.  Hours later I had massive amounts of coconut water, coconut cream, and coconut nut meat ready to dry for flour.  Not to mention a hectic mess that was every bit worth the trouble.   This stuff was teeming with nutrients and like everything else I have bought fresh here in Ecuador, dripping with terroir. 

I had always admired the coconut for its intensive nutrition and multiple uses but had done so via processed products conveniently available at the grocery.  Little did I know making my own coconut cream would provide enough caloric substance to live on for weeks!  At the end of the day, I wound up with a decadent yuca and coconut brownie served with whipped coconut cream and mora sauce.  Maybe my hosts saw this reward coming but I was relieved to serve them something worth their patience!

Yuca and Coconut Brownie served with Coconut Whipped Cream and Mora Sauce

Yuca and Coconut Brownie served with Coconut Whipped Cream and Mora Sauce

Below are a few recipes you might want to try when you have the kitchen all to yourself.  You can certainly substitute regular blackberries for the flavor specific Andean Mora, although you may want to add a little lemon juice to kick up the acidity. 

Fresh Coconut Whipped Cream 
1 large brown coconut that sloshes when shaken
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup heavy cream*
2 tb. honey
small pinch of salt

Method:

Pierce the coconut with a nail and hammer or a drill.  Drain juice into a blender.  Add the water.

Wrap the coconut in a towel and either bang the circumference of the fruit on the steps of a colonial-era house in Cuenca or just use a hammer to crack it open.  Remove the meat from the husk using a machete (or a knife will do.)  Peel the brown skin from the meat and add to the blender.  Process on high until a thick slurry appears.

Strain through cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer.  Reserve the meat to make coconut flour and transfer the liquid to the refrigerator for at least an hour or overnight.  The cream will separate at the top.  Skim 1/4 cup of the coconut cream and place in a container with a lid along with the heavy cream, honey, and salt.  Shake until firm.  Or just use a hand mixer if you aren't in Ecuador and have one handy...

Serve with your favorite brownie or chocolate cake dressed with mora sauce.

*If you wish to make a vegan whipped cream, simply skim all of the coconut cream and allow to stand uncovered in the refrigerator until more water evaporates and the consistency becomes very thick, usually around 24 hours.  Using a handheld mixer, beat on high with a few tablespoons powdered sugar.  Make sure and lick your fingers along the way...

Mora Sauce
12 oz. fresh moras
4 oz. granulated sugar (or more to taste)
1/2 tb. grated ginger

Method:

Clean the fruit, removing any stems or leaves.  Run the moras and ginger in a blender.  Strain the juice through a sieve to remove the seeds. Place the juice in a pot and add the sugar. Cook on medium heat for 20-30 minutes or until the syrup thickens.  The sauce will become frothy as it cooks but frequent stirring will help even out the consistency.  

Serve with cakes, brownies, pancakes, over ice cream, or as a mixer for your favorite drink or smoothie.  

Rubus glaucus growing in the Andes near Baños de Agua Santa, Ecuador

Rubus glaucus growing in the Andes near Baños de Agua Santa, Ecuador