Sunday, June 17, 2012

Double Duty Pollinators and Plants - Brillat-Savarin and Milkweed

live bees stole the show
Yesterday I helped out at the Pollinator Festival organized by Sabrina Malach at Evergreen Brickworks.

 I was in my ceremonial pollinator regalia, but the real stars of the show were the honeybees in a glass demonstration hive at the table next to us. Live bees trump top hats.

Bob Wildfong
Bob Wildfong of Seeds of Diversity was staffing the booth and we chatted about sundry matters relating to pollinators and seeds. Seeds of Diversity and like-minded groups work to keep old-fashioned non-patented plant varieties available to the public. Of course pollinators are an essential part of helping create many of these seeds each year. Which brings me to my main topic, food.

We visited The Encampment at Fort York a few days ago (part of the Luminato Festival). Just as the sun set a cloud of June beetles began to fly. This attracted a flock of gulls who swooped amongst the tents gobbling up beetles on the wing. It was a June food moment. I hope someone with a video camera caught that magic moment with white gulls swooping down the aisles of white tents with surprised and in some cases panicked people (a Hitchcock moment, perhaps?).

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
At any rate when I exited the Fort through the gift shop I was dreaming of yummy crunchy bugs. That's why I succumbed and bought two food books: Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste and Native Harvest: American Indian Wild Foods and Recipes by E. Barrie Kavasch. Today I alternated gardening and reading and preparing for dinner.

On the way to the cottage yesterday we stopped at a farmhouse and bought a pint of freshly picked, unsprayed strawberries. It has been a bit dry this spring, so the berries were not huge and plump the way commercial irrigated varieties are. However what they lost in volume they more than made up for in sweet, concentrated taste. A few weeks ago I watched native bees visiting the wild strawberry flowers in our cottage lawn, and now they are ripe too - tomorrow morning I will pick a few of the tiny but intensely flavorful berries for breakfast.

Sheila Colla, bumblebee expert

At the Pollinator Festival I ran into bumblebee expert Sheila Colla. She explained to some visitors to the Pollinator booth that we do indeed have two species of bumblebees that have become somewhat more common (perhaps aided by the decline of honeybees), but that we have many fewer of other bumblebee species. This set me to thinking of that bumblebee-pollinated fruit, the blueberry. It's a little early for fresh ones so I bought a bag of frozen wild berries from a store. They are much smaller than the huge but relatively flavorless commercial varieties. Tonight we will have strawberries, blueberries, and wildflower honey on vanilla ice cream as desert. Heaven in a mouthful!

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin extols sugar in his book but if he has anything to say about honey I must have missed it. Brillat-Savarin preferred meats, vegetables, and fats to carbohydrates; he warned that excessive consumption of sugars and carb-rich food led to obesity. So, it is to Native Harvests that I must turn for wonderful recipes using honey.

E. Barrie Kavasch
Barrie Kavasch notes that many tribes refined maple, birch, and other saps to get sweets long before Europeans brought honeybees to the Americas in 1622. Yet, once loose in the great forests with their abundance of tree hollows for nesting in, honeybees probably outran European settlers. They were present in the wild in abundance from about 1650 onwards, giving native tribes lots of time to incorporate honey into their cooking.

I have to admit that I got overexcited reading recipes such as "Hickory-Nut Corn Pudding" with its honey, nut butter, and goldenrod flowers, or the "Cranberry-Walnut Cakes" with honey, walnuts, cranberries, and cattail flour (which is actually pollen). Keeping in mind Brillat-Savarin's warnings about excessive sweets, I looked for other dishes for the main course.

It's early in the summer here at the cottage so we don't have spices for making barbecue sauce the way I like it (tragically, the Tabasco sauce got left at home). Nonetheless when I found pork side ribs on sale I felt I must do something with them. Weeding in the garden, I was thinning hundreds of Russian Red kale seedlings and decided to cook them with the pork. Kale is biennial; I always leave a few plants to overwinter and bloom the next June, and today I watched bees visiting their yellow flowers. Seeds from these plants will ripen and drop in the garden and give me seedling to transplant next spring. I've been doing this for 15 years and the garden is always full of kale seedlings.

Mature kale leaves become tough and bitter and need long slow cooking or frost to make them palatable, but seedlings are much tenderer. I harvested a large bunch of them, chopped them finely, mixed them with sage leaves, thyme flowers, and fresh fennel sprout and laid them in the bottom of a ceramic dish. Over them I laid the ribs, then another layer of kale. I poured balsamic vinegar over the mix and then dribbled 2 teaspoons of wildflower honey on top. Covered with foil, the ribs and kale cooked for 5 hours in the oven at about 225F. When served, the kale was delicious!

milkweed - use green buds. Wikimedia.

We have an outstanding display of common milkweed plants (Asclepias syriaca) in the field next to the garden. Near the summer solstice these are not quite in bloom, so at the perfect stage for picking the green flower bud clusters and the small tender leaves that shelter them. The tip of each shoot had 3 bud clusters; I picked only one, leaving two to form pods, some of which I will harvest and pickle in a few weeks. I rinsed the buds and boiled them for 8 minutes, then drained them. They were just as delicious as Kavasch had promised; I succumbed and had mine with a bit of mayonnaise.

I have been encouraging milkweeds for years as a food source for monarch caterpillars, but never imagined I could eat them too. The plants are full of bitter compounds, but boiling the young shoots, leaves, buds, or pods breaks down the bitterness.

Milkweed, kale,  honey, strawberries and blueberries; bees and monarchs; a feast to celebrate Pollinator Week!

1 comment:

  1. Sorry we stole the show with the live bees and that I did get a chance to chat with you.

    "Yet, once loose in the great forests with their abundance of tree hollows for nesting in, honeybees probably outran European settlers."

    My understanding is that they were referred to as the white-mans fly and their presence was thought to signal that the white people were coming. There's an interesting account of the arrival of honeybees in North America in 'sweetness and light' by Hattie Ellis.

    Your culinary adventures are inspiring.