Apr 152012

I love early Spring. Cool days mingle with warmer ones, light breezes tickle your body while bright perfumes flirt with your senses. Days are variable as are moods, full sun mixes evenly (or not so) with gentle rains that nourish the ground and coax it back to life. If there was a color to associate with spring it would likely be green. But those that know Spring, really know it, know that there is a beautiful spectrum of greens, from the deep dark greens of vinca to the light greens of budding maples to the mixed shades of green found on the native honeysuckles. I love green. It speaks of potential, of birth and rebirth. It speaks of desire coming to life, of newness, innocence and the continuation of a cycle that never dies, only sleeps for a time gathering its energies to release them all in full force. And just as I love the green of my surroundings so too do I love the green of my food. Traditional Spring foods evoke images of tender fresh peas, sweet and succulent and lightly dressed asparagus so full of flavor it hardly needs to be dressed at all. Perhaps a touch of lemon to balance the flavor, a splash of oil for richness and a sparkle of salt or just a plain old raw stalk so tender it almost melts in your mouth. Less traditional but equally delicious dock greens, with their slightly sour aftertaste and deeply nourishing nettles fill my kitchen with their wild green selves.

I love soups, they are infinitely versatile, nourishing and satisfying. They make a delicious first course for a fancy dinner but served with a wild salad and a hunk of sourdough (or a few hunks in my case) can make the centerpiece of a comforting meal. Spring soups are some of my favorites. Highlighting the greenness of Spring, they speak of nourishment and health. They are often more versatile than winter soups being delicious served both hot and cold. They live in a kind of in between world, one that whispers gently of life and vitality but contains remnants of a coldness not far in the past. They serve as a reminder of Springs fleeting nature and encourage you to take full advantage of what’s around you and for April’s Wild Things Round Up that’s exactly what I did.

One of my favorite soups is split pea with ham. Warming and filling it is a perfect mix of thick building energy and enlivening freshness. This year, however, I decided to try something new: a sort of wild pseudo split pea soup. The soup is a fusion of two distinct recipes. Recently I received a beautiful new cookbook (oh man do I NOT need anymore, but I love them!). It’s called Around My French Table by Dorrie Greenspan and I highly recommend it. As I was thumbing through the soups section I came across this interesting and unique take on a traditional French Spring recipe, peas and lettuce. Usually made with fresh spring peas and sautéed with onions and fresh young lettuce Mmme Greenspan turned this traditional recipe into a flavorful and unique soup. Hmm thought I. The beginning of something wonderful and unique and that I could call my own. So I thought about it and it came to me to try using Redbud flowers as a substitute for the peas and using a leftover ham hock and a few handfuls of dock to give it that nice Spring green color, Ham and Redbud soup was born.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is an early Spring flowering tree in the Fabaceae family. Related to the more common garden pea Redbud has delicious slightly aromatic and sweet flavor with a decisive bean-y taste. The buds taste quite different in different stages so I strongly encourage you to taste them and find out what you like best. Personally I like the open flowers the best but since there are few that are fully open at this point, I used a combination of both open and unopened buds. It’s extra work but if you have time it’s worth taking off the brown part that connects the various flower stalk of the flowers together, it has a strong bitter flavor. This soup is very mildly seasoned comprising mainly of pork stock with a little chopped preserved lemon, a touch of clove and lots of black pepper. Sweet and bean-y with an edge of bitter and a lot of wild energy I think you’ll really enjoy it. Best when served drizzled with a little fresh cream or a spoonful of crème fraîche. Make, share and enjoy!

Ham and Redbud soup—with dock!

1 onion

1 Tb. lard

2 qts. Water or broth

1 ham hock with a little meat if possible

3-4 handfuls of dock leaves (Rumex sp.)

3 small potatoes

1 clove

1 tsp. fresh black pepper

1 tsp. preserved lemon

Salt to taste

Slice the onion and sauté in the lard until soft and the pungency no longer makes you want to cry. Add the water or broth and the ham hock and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes and allow to simmer with a lid for anywhere from 1-3 hours (the longer the more flavorful it will get). Add 2 cups of Redbud buds and the chopped dock leaves and continue to cook until the dock turns a bit dull in color. Remove the bone and the meat still attached, reserve in a bowl. Puree the soup with the preserved lemon and the clove and add salt and pepper. Remove as much meat as possible from the bone and put it in the soup. Serve hot or cold.

Sep 272011

Walnuts, who doesn’t love them? How about Black Walnuts? I can’t believe I’ve spent so much of my life not enjoying this delicious wild (and free!) edible. Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) is a robust tree in the Hickory family, Juglandaceae, with alternate pinnately compound leaves and grey-black bark. In older trees the grey-black bark is deeply furrowed and the tree can reach heights of 138 ft making this tree both magnificent and beautiful. It is bisexual, meaning it has separate male and female flowers. This time of year the female flowers develop into its fruit: a walnut surrounded by a hard shell and a beautiful light green hull.

Juglans nigra fruits

Black Walnut as used in medicine can be traced back to at least the 17th century where it was employed in Russian folk medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine states that eating Black Walnuts builds strength. Juglans is an abundant and useful medicine that is still in use today. Modern herbalists employ the hulls and leaves (more precisely the leaflets) for digestive issues, low thyroid function and sometimes to kill parasites. This post, however, will focus on a too oft overlooked part of this incredible and versatile tree: the fruit.

As I mentioned above, the fruit which ripens around now, is covered by a hard outer shell (and I do mean hard!) which in turn is covered by a somewhat soft-fleshy husk. The husks are easy enough to remove and can be covered by oil, isopropyl alcohol or ethanol and used for medicine (more on that in a future post). Once the husks are removed many people suggest to let the nuts sit in their shell for a few days which matures the fruit and deepens the flavor. I have not yet done this but I intend to try it, let me know if you do!

So if this fruit is so spectacular, why is it so often overlooked? Perhaps it’s due to that hard shell I keep mentioning. In this microwave savvy fast-food society it’s east to see that it might be just a bit too much work for people. But listen up folks! The effort pays off, promise. Nothing can compare to the delicate and yet complex flavor that this nut offers. Somewhere between intoxicating perfume and deep earth this nut is the perfect accompaniment to, well, everything.

 So how best to crack open this  nut? I think there are as many  answers as there are people  who are willing to do it. One  popular method is to place  the hulled nuts in a sack and  run them over with a car.  Haven’t tried it but it sounds  promising. At this point I have  just done the slow and steady  method of beating them with a  hammer. As we begin to shed our leaves with the trees and begin our descent into warmer, richer and deeper foods that will nourish and sustain us in the coming cold months I particularly like it in this adaptation of a walnut cake. The original recipe was adapted from Gourmet magazine and I have further adapted it from Smitten Kitchen. I’ve adapted it to make it lower in the sugar and gluten department and of course we’re using wild walnuts in this recipe. Rich in protein and fat plus trace minerals like manganese, phosphorous and zinc this walnut cake is nourishing and even a little bit healthy. The jam can be anything but this time of year I especially like elderberry jam,
and if you’re lucky fig jam.


1 1/4 cups walnut, toasted

1/2 cup honey

1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

½ tsp cinnamon powder
1/2 cup rye flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (optional)
1/2 cup elderberry or fig jam

2/3 cup chilled heavy cream
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour an 8-inch round cake pan, best if it has one of the cool, removable bottoms.

Pulse cooled walnuts and in a food processor until finely chopped. Cream butter and honey, then add eggs and vanilla. Add to walnuts and process until combined. Add flour, baking powder, and salt and pulse just until incorporated. Spread batter in cake pan.

Bake until cake is just firm to the touch and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool 15 minutes in pan, then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.

Whisk lemon juice (if using) into jam. Spoon jam over cake.

Beat heavy cream with sour cream and vanilla until it holds soft peaks, then spoon over jam. Try not to eat the whole thing all at once.