Foraging at home

I’ve read the foraging exploits of the other Ethicureans with some jealousy, but our CSA box has kept us too busy to roam the neighborhood for ripening fruit. There are cherry trees 4 blocks west of us, but we haven’t walked past them since the cherry blossoms started decorating the sidewalks and streets with pink petals. They may or may not have fruit. Last week, I decided to start foraging very locally and take advantage of what was in our yard when we moved to our place a few months ago.

The raspberries, as previously noted, had produced quite a bit of fruit, and they seemed to revive for a second act after the traditional rain on July 4. We have been overwhelmed by fruit in the past month, and I would like something other than berries. The CSA box that I picked up on July 4th was supposed to have 1.5 pints of raspberries. I was happy that someone had made a mistake and had given us only .5 pints of raspberries and put in two heads of lettuce that we shouldn’t have gotten. Our CSA farm is up front about the lack of perfection in their packing process, but most of the time they do packlavender.jpg exactly what the weekly newsletter says we will get. I didn’t mind the mistake.

Aside from the berries, we also have two lively rosemary bushes, a pathetic set of parsley plants that are going to seed, plum trees that have unripe fruit, and lavender bushes. We have a small English lavender bush in the back yard, Spanish lavender (a non-culinary breed) on the side, and a larger collection of English lavender in front. What’s that you say? Will we make scented soaps with our crops? Nonsense. Lavender is one of the Herbes de Provence, no matter what Wikipedia thinks, and you may find it in bouquet garnis as well. Usually, I rub lavender on lamb or beef before broiling, or I will mix equal parts of lavender, kosher salt, coarse pepper and rosemary and roll the meats (usually lean, tender cuts) in the mixture to coat them. The resulting meat goes well with Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon. Lavender also can be added to chicken or soups. The Herbfarm Cookbook has recipes and information about lavender (and a fussy tendency to remind you in the middle of recipes that you are dealing with raw chicken).

My copy of the Sunset Western Garden Book says to harvest lavender before the flowers open, roughly as pictured above. The book doesn’t say why to harvest at this time, but an article about harvesting written by Happy Valley Lavender and Herb Farm leads me to the conclusion that waiting longer will result in a loss of oils, reducing the flower’s potency. Harvesting when the flowers are developed but not yet open ensures stronger flavors. Victoria-based Happy Valley also lists lavender-based recipes for ice cream, jelly, cheesecake and other delectable treats. (British Columbia has at least one other lavender farm, Lavender Harvest Farms, which is organic.)

Despite what the Garden Book says, we harvest a handful of lavender flowers after they have opened and put them into a meat rub (1-2 teaspoons each of lavender, rosemary, black pepper and kosher salt). The result is delicious and goes well with the bottle Cabernet-Merlot blend that the Butter Bitch brought back from Arizona.

The backyard lavender is not yet ripe, so I cut stems from the front bushes, snipping the stems just above the green rasp-lav.jpgleaves. A few minutes’ labor produced a large bundle of lavender that I separate into three bunches, about as thick around as if you were to make a circle with your thumb and forefinger. These were bundled and hung in our garage to dry. Lavender likes dark cool places, and if a garage or cellar isn’t available, they can be put inside a brown paper bag. After four days, the lavender is nearly dry and is joined by the bundle of lavender that comes with our weekly CSA box. We should have enough dried lavender flowers to last through the winter, even if I roll pieces of meat in nothing but lavender.

Rosemary is a hearty mint that can be used in recipes either fresh or dried. We have a large bush that has woody branches, perfect if we buy a charcoal grill, and a smaller bush that has tender, supple branches. The larger bush flowered this spring even after I trimmed back its branches, and some of the bush is cluttered with drying flowers. The leaves won’t be easy to harvest because of the crumbly flower petals, so I’ve left it alone until the fall. The smaller bush is perfect for use, but I don’t want to remove too many branches or I’ll kill it. I took a long branch and hung it upside down in the kitchen to dry for a couple of weeks (longer than necessary), and just recently removed the dried leaves and stored them in a jar with our other herbs.

Lavender is drought-resistant, and rosemary seems to need no attention whatsoever. A friend grows rosemary in planters at her apartment and mentions that she does have to water them. We have had rosemary in yards in Oregon, California and Washington and have not watered them, though the bushes at our current place are yellowing. If the summer heat returns, we will break our habit and water the bushes to make sure they survive. The bushes are just outside our back door, in easy reach if we need more rosemary while preparing a recipe.

Our neighbors have a cherry tree that overhangs our yard, and I have watched the fruit ripe slowly over the past week. I realize that the fruit is ripe when I see a crow fly across our back yard holding three cherries in its beak. A group of crows strip the tree nearly bare of fruit, leaving only cherry pits and half-eaten fruit. I consider myself lucky on another day when I spot a lone cherry hanging under a cluster of leaves. I don’t know how the crows missed that, when all of the other cherries have been taken or stripped of their flesh. Our neighbors are gone, so I reach over the fence and grab the cherry. On top of a nearby evergreen tree I hear a crow heckling me, but I ignore it (though I do rinse the cherry). The cherry is delicious. Darned crows.

Update: Dairy Queen asked me how to identify Spanish lavender (also known as French lavender), a detail I overlooked. Spanish lavender looks like a purple pineapple with feathers stuck in the top, while English lavender looks a little more dignified.

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