Category Archives: food and cooking

The life force of words and wild things.

The Queen Anne’s Lace, or Daucus carota, one of the “wildflowers of the carrot family,” is in full glory this month along the creek near my house. It was a mild winter and a wet spring; though we are now well into the dry season, their plantation is lush.

Once before I posted a gallery of images of them, various angles and perspectives. This week my walk along the path was greatly extended and I explored the current neighborhood that has grown up, full of a unique assortment of plants and animals developing from this year’s natural and man-provoked conditions. That means a completely new gallery!

The picture just above shows a morning glory weed or bindweed (Convolvulus), which has twined around the stem of an opened flower, grown on through a bud, and is now reaching out into space. It has an opened flower just above the lower Queen Anne’s Lace bloom. And I just noticed a little seed of something, close to the bottom of the photo, and about to drop down, down… and make a contribution to next spring’s neighborhood.

Fennel in the background.

In my last gallery of Queen Anne’s Lace, I featured the red spots that are found in the center of many of the blooms. This year what were more eyecatching were insects and the other umbellifers.

I learned that word almost a year ago when Pippin and I were exploring wetlands together. As I walked along my nearby creek path I began to think about the flower form that Queen Anne’s Lace shares with the wild fennel nearby, and the word was struggling along my mind’s synapses for several minutes… and finally arrived where I could grab it. Today I researched its meaning again; it comes from the old name for the plant Family Apiaceae, which was Umbelliferae.

I found several helpful webpages besides the Wikipedia information. One has a timeline of North American invasive species: “We came on the Mayflower, too!“, where I learned that our wild fennel likely did come with those first pilgrims in 1620, and it spread all over the continent. That site also has lots of recipes for using wild plants, and I would be interested to try using the tender green fronds of fennel, or even the stems. But on the fennel page they were a little sloppy with their botany, telling me that fennel and anise are the same thing, which they are not.

Let’s start with fennel, which is my neighbor: its botanical name is  Foeniculum vulgare. Anise is Pimpinella anisum. They are both in the Apiaceae family but different genera. The fleshy bulb that is eaten as a vegetable is a fennel bulb. Anise looks very similar in the field, but I don’t ever see reference to eating the bulb.

On the Spiceography page I read a paragraph-long comparison of the seeds, which both contain the essential oil anethole. I found its guidelines confusing, and concluded that I will just try to use whichever seed a recipe calls for. By the way, two other plants with this flavor but completely unrelated and different in form are star anise and liquorice.

Anise is an ingredient in many alcoholic beverages traditional to the Mediterranean and Asia. At least one of them, absinthe, includes fennel as well. I was pleased to see a map showing the locales and the names of the drinks.

When I was in Turkey I did enjoy rakı. (Yes, that is an i without a dot. It designates a schwa or ə sound.) Usually it was served with a water; you would pour a little rakı in your glass and then add water. It turned all milky then, as in this picture. No one ever tried to explain to me why this happened, and I doubt they could have if they knew, because when I read the explanation for it now it’s very complicated to my unscientific mind: The Ouzo Effect.

Fennel flower

I seem to have drifted from flowers to food and drink (passing quickly over insects). Truly this earth is full of enough animal, vegetable and mineral to keep us forever occupied examining, experimenting, cooking and brewing — and thanking our Father for putting us in a world so packed with beauty and life.

Lotus seed for the world.

One package I picked up at the Indian market was a large bag of phool makhana or puffed lotus seed, a sort of popped-corn form of the seed of the lotus plant Nelumbo nucifera. When I was in India one restaurant that specialized in salads sprinkled a few of these puffs on top of one concoction that I loved.

I read about lotus seeds online, where there is a wealth of enthusiastic promotion of the food item as a cure-all, physically and spiritually. Unfortunately much of the prose resembles the spam comments I get on my blog, and gives me the giggles.

“… eaten as a fasting food in India as it considered a very pious. And, is also used to worship God.” Well, of course. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” (I Corinthians 10:31)

Even Wikipedia seems to gush: “Lotus seeds can be processed into moon cake, lotus seed noodles and food in forms of paste, fermented milk, rice wine, ice cream, popcorn (phool makhana) and others, with lotus seeds as the main raw material. Fresh lotus seed wine has thirst quenching, spleen healing and anti-diarrheal advantages after drinking.[40][41] Lotus seed tea is consumed in Korea, and lotus embryo tea is consumed in China and Vietnam.”

One website that sells various flavors of puffed lotus seeds has this to say: “Focusing on ‘co-creation’ at all levels, we aim to bridge the gap between nature and consumers… to create an offering by combining the natural foods with modern techniques so as to enable the human kind to rejoice these gifts. POPMAK … is a healthy munching solution for all ages… which can add values in your life. We are just four years old company, aiming big to deliver and in this endeavor we will remain child like enthusiast for ever. Expect more surprises from us soon!!!!”

I must mention here a couple more Indian snacks that are in the house right now. Kareena bought these flaky fenugreek biscuits that she often eats for breakfast and shares with Raj.

I’ve eaten a few of them myself and they are really nice — crispy and subtly flavored.

We bought some bhakarwadi which I have already eaten all up. They are like a cross between a barely-sweet cookie and a cracker with Indian spices, mildly hot.

Bhakarwadi

The popped lotus seeds straight out of the bag were pretty bland and had the texture of stale popcorn. I roasted them in a pan with ghee, salt and spices, which transformed them into another light and crunchy, addictive Indian snack. Rejoice!

Sweet no matter how you spell it.

This week I traveled to the Washington D.C. area to visit Kate and her family, including little “Raj” whom I’ve mentioned before, now almost 17 months old. I had attended his birth in India, but now they are living here in Arlington, Virginia for a while.

So far I’ve just been hanging out — the Indian nanny Kareena is here, too, and my first day I walked with her and Raj many blocks to a park where the little guy could play on the swings and in the sand pit. It was a lovely outing; that day the wind was howling and seemed to blow off the heat and humidity quite a bit.

 

Today we needed to do a big shopping trip, including to the Indian market, Kareena’s first stocking-up since they arrived. That was so much fun. We all kept adding to the baskets over the course of a half-hour at least, spicy snacks and unusual vegetables, the favorite brand of masala chai tea, mango chutney, chapati flour and besan flour, which is chickpea flour, or gram flour.

When I was in India I wrote home about a confection that is made with chickpea flour, pronounced ladoo and spelled in English like that or in many other ways, as I’m discovering: laddoo, laddu, and even ladu, as I saw it today.

This word is also an Indian nickname for the first-born son especially, and sometimes more generally a term of endearment: “Sweet.” Kareena uses it for my grandson all day long.

When I was on my way home from India in February of 2018 my plane was delayed four hours before it even left Mumbai; at 3:00 a.m. I was wandering the airport shops looking for some comfort food that wasn’t entirely simple carbs, and I found a snack that had chickpea flour in the ingredients, and ghee. That sounded wholesome enough 🙂 and it was the most splendid treat. One version was on the shelf in the market today, and when we arrived home and were putting all our purchases away I saw that Kareena had bought a package.

About a year ago I spent quite a while researching recipes to make my own besan ladoo, and I have a few pounds of the flour in my fridge that I bought even earlier for some other recipe. None of these facts should cause anyone to hope that Indian sweets will ever come out of my kitchen. I can easily live without that kind of goodie.

But the curlyhead that we call Raj or Ladoo, he came to us already delicious and sweet, and I can’t get enough of him.

We drink hogwash, and play.

This morning I drove on many narrow and winding roads that I’d never been on before,
on my way to the coast to meet Pippin’s family at the oyster farm.

 

On the way there, I lost cell service, and lost my way, but until I realized how late I was going to be, I was oohing and aahing at the scenery and hoping to take pictures on the way home. After that, I just drove as fast as I could and made myself carsick.

But I got there, and pulled up behind the familiar black van; Pippin and the children were standing next to Highway 1 looking for me, and Ivy ran up and declared, “It’s stinky!” With that we began our tour of the Hog Island Oyster Company. Hog Island is an island in Tomales Bay, where these oysters are raised, several million every year.

 

< < Oyster shells are put to good use
in the parking areas.

Isn’t that an interesting crack-like body of water? It can’t be a fjord, because this is California. The San Andreas Fault, which is “a transform fault–where plates pass one another like cars on a two way street,” runs in a line down the middle of the bay. This classic photo (at left) of a displaced fence shows what happened as a result of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and why rock formations on the east and west sides of the bay are so very different. Earthquake country! Here is another map of the area if you want to get your bearings. It is the county just north of San Francisco.

Oysters really like to grow here, because of the particular mix of fresh and salt water, the currents, temperature, and the rich variety of plankton. The farmers keep constant and close tabs on everything, including bacteria, temperature, and those plankton. The plankton are counted every week! Here’s a chart they use when they are looking through their microscopes at the seawater samples:

(Sorry, I was also looking at it upside-down.) We saw samples of different types of oysters such as French, Pacific, Atlantic… As you might guess, the Pacific oysters are what they grow the most of here. Oysters naturally grow and fuse together and if left to themselves will eventually form a solid oyster wall in the water. Farmers have to be stirring them up all the time or breaking them apart to keep them growing in the most usable form, and a typical smallish Pacific oyster takes one and a half years from seed to harvest.

baby oysters found on the ground
“wild” oyster

These farmers typically harvest 60% of what they plant. There are frequent quarantines for a few days every time it rains, or if a strange bacterium is found in the bay. Regulations come from the government at both federal and state levels, and they can conflict and cause delays that have nothing to do with safety. You can be pretty sure that the oysters you buy or eat here are fresh and safe, but oysters are like Petri dishes if you drive a couple of hours on a warm day, carrying them home in the trunk of your car. With all of the possible complications in oyster farming, I’m surprised that they aren’t more expensive to buy.

The oysters here are raised in bags on a line under the water, and the bags are frequently flipped to jostle them and keep them from growing on to each other. These are a couple of bagsful just harvested.

We did get to eat a few oysters, too, and several other delectable things from the picnic café right next to the barn where they are sorting. With all the variableness of growing conditions and regulators’ decisions, oyster farming is not consistently profitable, so many farmers have branched out and are operating restaurants as well, from which they can earn a somewhat more steady income. Here in Marin they have a lot of clientele from Marin County and the East (San Francisco) Bay.

The little café has barbecue grills where you can cook Hog Island’s oysters in your own way if you want, while looking out at Tomales Bay and the birds. We didn’t use those, but we did eat raw oysters with lemon and Hogwash — this establishment’s version of Mignonette sauce; barbecued oysters, burrata cheese, and trout with roe. Our guide’s son preferred to put the Hogwash on his bread or to drink it straight up. Truly, it’s good to have bread with a meal like this, for sopping up the juices of everything.

Pippin and I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the wildlife and the child-life,
and the multicolored buildings of this historic town of Marshall.

After all that fun I said good-bye to everyone and drove home by myself. Sprinkles of rain accompanied me all along my leisurely drive, but not so much that I couldn’t take take pictures. Right across the road from the oyster company were bushes that looked sort of like broom to me… but not quite.

When I got home I found out it is gorse, of all things, like in the English stories. This cousin of broom is not native, it’s terribly invasive and undesirable, and a fire hazard to boot. Broom has leaves, and gorse has prickles! If you want to know more, this article about Gorse the Invader is very informative.

I feasted my eyes on Tomales Bay, cattle, mustard and more mustard, and clumps of calla lilies like you only see on the coast. Often next to a driveway to a dairy farm, a few bulbs were planted long ago and still thrive and expand on benign neglect under the foggy skies, growing into an irregular and wide swath that contrasts in the loveliest way with the green grass. These patches never will appear where I am able to pull over and snap their picture. Pacific Coast iris dot the fields on such narrow stretches of road that it would be dangerous for me to walk back from a turnout in an effort to frame them with my camera.

My favorite Pride of Madeira (echium) is in bloom, too!

As you can see, I did eventually get home, filled with knowledge and images — and oysters!