The Teacup Chronicles

Category: Violet

Patera Garden

There is a particular sort of beauty expressed by a garden in the autumn. A beauty of a more stark and startling nature than that seen in other seasons. A beauty born from the contrast of growth with decay – lively bursts of color set against a backdrop of skeletons and spider webs catching the morning dew.

Earlier this week, I was given the great pleasure of leading a class at Patera Garden, a medicinal teaching garden created and lovingly tended by herbalist Larken Bunce. The garden serves as a medium by which students of the first year program at The Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism, as well as the apprenticeship program, Herbs from the Ground Up, get to directly experience the plants they learn about – growing them from seed, lovingly tending them and finally harvesting and making medicine which serves the community through VCIH’s sliding scale clinic. The entire concept is a thing of beauty, and I urge you all to read more about it over at Larken’s Blog where she chronicles the adventures of Patera.

Anyhow, I set off early on Monday morning so I would have enough time before class to walk around the gardens and take some photos to share with you. It was one of those perfect autumn mornings where the air is crisp but the bright sunshine promises warmth. On my drive, I could see the little pockets of fog clinging to the valleys and the steam rising up from the rivers in big smoky clouds to a sky of perfect blue. The trees here and there provided vibrant bursts of color –  crimsons, golds and coppers – and as I drove the light flickered over me in that beautiful way that only happens when driving down a woodland road tunneled by trees on an autumn morning. Crumpled brown leaves seemed to be everywhere suspended in mid-air. It was a morning, in short, that leaves one breathless at it’s astounding beauty.

When I arrived at the gardens, the air was still and cold. Everything was covered in dew drops and certain patches of the garden where the sun was beginning to hit were sparkling like jewels. The first plant to catch my eye was Tulsi, or Holy Basil – an Ayurvedic herb that grows well here as an annual. It has an exotically spicy and sweet aroma that some liken to bubble gum and which begs you to pet it.

Just down the path on the left, the last of the Echinacea flowers were brilliant in the light, as thought they were glowing of their own luminescence.

In the far end of the garden, the sage next caught my eye. Covered in a million tiny droplets of dew, it was absolutely shimmering in the sunshine. I knelt down and inhaled deeply the crisp, sharp scent which cleared the sleepy fog from my mind and certainly did make me feel very “sage.”

Across the way, the violets sat looking into the sun all covered in their own dewdrop jewels. Their delicate green stems and precious little flowers looked so fragile in the autumn landscape – a last display of summer’s ethereal beauty.

Then there was the lady’s mantle all covered in that dew so prized by the alchemists for making medicine (which incidentally is the reason behind the latin name of this plant, Alchemilla vulgaris). It must’ve been hard going for them trying to get enough dew…

And anise-hyssop with her delicious tasting leaves to nibble on…

But it wasn’t the delicate flowers or dew dappled perfumed leaves that captured my heart in the end. It was the skeletons of angelica flowers – standing starkly in the back of the garden, adorned with spider’s webs and droplets of water. There’s was a beauty that made one’s heart ache in a very particular way.

And so, I leave you with the words of English poet John Donne,

No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace

as I have seen in one autumnal face

A few wild spring recipes

As I sit here, huge thunderheads are rolling through the mountains. This is a truly dramatic spring storm – a nice blob of red and yellow on the radar, flood warnings, tornado warnings – the works. The power’s been flickering on and off, winds suddenly gusting as a wall of rain comes at the house like a black curtain,  the thunder booming and reverberating all around us. Serious business. Both cats are upstairs under the comforter (evidenced by a small tunnel leading to a large quivering lump at the foot of the bed)  and I’m starting to consider joining them myself  after that last crash of thunder. But I thought I should write one last blog entry first in the case that I get whisked off to Oz.

What I have for you today is a sampling of my favorite wild foods recipes made over the spring thus far.  I’m going to spare you  anymore of my usual chitter chatter and get right to the recipes, because the thunder and lightning  are growing in intensity again and I’m afraid I’ll lose power if I’m not quick. Hope you enjoy!

Chickpea Crepes with wild greens sauté and aged swiss

Adapted from The Voluptuous Vegan by Myra Kornfield. Serves 6.

This is a simple recipe made for celebrating the clean, fresh flavors of spring. It’s light and satisfying – perfect for those warm spring evenings. The chickpea and buckwheat flours give the crepes added protein, nutrients and flavor –  imparting a wholesome nuttiness that pairs really well with the lemony spring greens. A Swiss or Gruyère cheese complements the greens really nicely and add a bit more decadence to the meal, but could easily be left out.

For the crepes:

  • 1 cup chickpea flour
  • 1/2 cup buckwheat flour
  • 1/2 cup unbleached white flour
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped herbs (chives, thyme, oregano, parsley, etc)

Directions:

  1. Whisk together the flours and salt in a medium-sized bowl. Add the oil and water, and whisk to combine, then transfer to a blender to thoroughly blend ingredients together. Pour back into a bowl and add the herbs. Let rest for 20 minutes or refrigerate overnight.
  2. Heat a large crêpe or sauté pan over medium heat. Very lightly oil the pan with olive oil, and pour 1/4 cup of batter in, tilting the pan around so that the batter covers the entire surface of the pan. Cook until the surface is riddled with bubbles and the edges are golden and drawing away from the pan. Loosen with a spatula and flip. Cook the second side for 30 minutes. (Note: Do not be discouraged if your first crêpe (or 2) is a soggy, sticky disaster, I promise it will get better. By the end you’ll feel like a natural.)
  3. Transfer the cooked crepes to a plate and continue until the batter is finished, being sure to lightly oil the pan in between crepes.

For the greens:

  • 1 pound nettle tops
  • 1/2 pounds Japanese knotweed shoots, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 bunch of asparagus cut into 1 inch pieces or 2 ounces fiddlehead fern tops
  • 1/4 pound ramps with their leaves, chopped roughly
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Directions:

  1. Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan on medium heat and add  the leeks. Cook 30 seconds or until fragrant, and then add the remaining vegetables to the pan.
  2. Cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are softened but still have a little bite to them.
  3. Squeeze the lemon over the vegetables, and season well with salt and pepper.

To assemble the crepes:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Spread half of a crêpe with the vegetable mix, and top with thin slices of an aged swiss or Gruyère cheese, preferably made from organic dairy. Fold the crêpe in half so that you have a half-moon, then fold the crêpe in half again so you have a multi-layered triangle. Repeat with the other crepes and place on a baking pan.
  3. Brush the tops of the crepes with olive oil or melted butter, and place in the oven until the cheese is melted and the tops are browned and crisp.

Serve with a simple side salad (a pile of spring beauty (Claytonia virgnica) in my case) and top with a sauce made from pesto thinned out with olive oil.

Nettle-kopita

If there is anything better than that indulgent Greek dish of spinach layered with filo and feta, it is NETTLE layered with filo and feta. The deep green and woodsy flavor of the nettle is a perfect pair for the salty feta and buttery, crispy filo layers. I’ve used wood nettle (Laportia canadensis) in this recipe, which is a close relative of nettle with a slightly less potent sting that happens to be more abundant where I live than the good old stinging variety (Urtica dioica). 

Serves 6

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 pounds fresh nettle tops
  • 2 1/3 cups feta cheese, organic
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • grated nutmeg
  • 1 package filo dough
  • 1/4 pound butter, melted or 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions:

  1. Blanch the nettles in boiling salted water for a minute or two, then drain well. Once cooled slightly, place in a towel and squeeze out as much water as you can. Then chop the greens finely and add to a bowl with the feta, eggs, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lat out one sheet of filo dough in an oiled rectangular baking pan, keeping the remaining sheets of filo covered with a damp cloth to prevent drying. Butter the filo and place another sheet to exactly cover the first, buttering again. If the filo hangs over the side of the pan, don’t worry.  Continue until you’ve layered 5 sheets, and then add half of the nettle mixture.
  3.  Layer another 3 or 4 sheets of filo over the nettles, buttering between each one.
  4. Add the other half the nettle mixture, and then top with 5 sheets of filo – again, buttering each one. If your filo sheets are overhanging the side of the pan, fold them over the top and give everything a final brush with butter. Add a little salt, pepper and grated nutmeg to the top. Cut the pie into 12 triangular pieces.
  5. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the top is golden and crisp
  6. Cool slightly, and then serve.

Backyard Salad

This salad should be assembled based on the edibles you find growing in your backyard. For me, I’ve added dandelion greens and flowers, plantain leaves, wild strawberry leaves and flowers, violet leaves and flowers and the succulent tips of orpine. Toss with a lemony vinaigrette just before serving.

April’s Blog Party: Spring foraging and gardening

This month’s blog party is being hosted by the lovely Leslie over at Comfrey Cottages. She has chosen the theme of Spring wild foraging and herbal gardening (both things so very close to my heart!). She says,

I realize that not everywhere in the world is it feeling very spring like yet, and some of you might even still have snow, so if it isn’t quite time for you to garden or forage yet, still feel free to post about past adventures or ones you have plans for. The same applies to gardening. I look forward to any new tips, recipes or other ideas you come up with to share!

I immediately decided that I was going to make a deliciously bitter and pungent salad for the occasion out of a few of my favorite wild edibles. Venturing out to gather Spring’s wild spring greens has been a tradition for nearly all cultures living in the Northern Hemisphere – not only because the act in itself seems to reinvigorate us with the sight of fresh growth and new life, but also because the exotic pungent and bitter flavors of these greens stimulate and revitalize our systems after the stagnancy created by dark days and heavy foods. Their strong and exotic flavors help to stimulate digestive and detoxification processes throughout the body – while the high nutrient levels they contain nourish us deeply and provide a boost to our entire system.

But sadly, the week of the blog party has come, and there still isn’t much going on here  in terms of foraging. Aside from the tiniest, most adorable little dandelions:

and a few mud strewn wild strawberry leaves, the wild goodness of spring has a week or two more before it begins to show itself. But that is no bother at all, as there are plenty of delicious little shoots appearing in the herb garden.

Along with all those glorious weeds and wild edibles of the forest, perennial herbs are the stars of the early spring table. Pale and delicate shoots of culinary herbs such as oregano and thyme are revealed from their hiding places under the snow, offering up milder tasting and tenderer counterparts to their summer harvest.  Indeed, all throughout the garden one finds tiny, richly colored and deeply crinkled leaves appearing around the bases of the dried out stalks signalling the presence of last year’s growth – (as well as some delicious eating!).

Oregano

Valerian

Catnip

All of our cultivated medicinals can be enlisted for the same type of medicinal food offered by our beloved spring greens – and are especially lovely when mixed with them. Tiny shoots of lemon balm, fuzzy fronds of yarrow,  or the first, tenderest growth of meadowsweet. The leaves are tender, the flavors somewhat muted but still exotic and enticing – our beloved medicines from later in the season provide the the most bizarre and delicious of spring salads.

To create your own spring salad, you want a nice blend of flavors, shapes and textures. Go for herbs and wild greens from each category if you can, to create a truly spectacular explosion of flavors:

  • Citrusy/tart lemon balm, sorrel or dock leaves;
  •  Bitter dandelion and chicory greens, yarrow fronds, and tiniest motherwort, lady’s mantle or catnip leaves;
  • Pungent oregano and marjoram shoots, garlic mustard, very young horseradish shoots, any cress (bitter-cress, watercress, etc), violet leaves
  • Garlicky chives, ramps (wild leeks), ramsons (wild garlic);
  • Cucumberish borage flowers or young leaves, meadowsweet shoots;
  • Anise-like or Celery: chervil, sweet cecily, fennel shoots, young angelica leaves, parsley, lovage;
To assemble the salad, I like to combine any sort of variety of greens available from my garden and backyard, trying to touch on at least a few different flavors for complexities sake – and being sure to add in a few milder tasting greens like chickweed, plantain leaves, or wild strawberry leaves to mute things out just a bit. The flavors are so vibrant that the salad really needs little more than a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of a nutty oil like hazelnut or walnut, and a hint of sea salt and cracked pepper.

My spring salad of yarrow fronds, youngest dandelions, oregano shoots, and wild strawberry leaves

These are the types of salads that make you feel truly invigorated after you eat them – supercharged on pure spring energy. They are my simple yet also my favorite way to enjoy the splendor of spring’s wild plants and the first growth of my garden.

Be sure to check out Comfrey Cottages tomorrow, where you will surely find lots of foraging and spring gardening inspiration when Leslie posts the links to all of the blog party entries.