Last night I shared a drink with a childhood friend and the boy, now a man, who grew up in the house next to mine at Our House, an establishment perfectly named for the little gathering we had. My neighbor and I joked about our fathers’ ancient disagreement over a shared and mutually coveted parking spot. We talked about owls. And someone noticed my arm tattoo, which has a rendering of a Red-winged Blackbird, and a quote from Albert Camus that reads, “In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was within me an invincible summer.” We all mused on the importance of finding one’s “invincible summer,” and then we turned the conversation to the important connection of the internal summer—the internal strength and fire—to appreciating the external invincible summer—the inherent beauty and richness that are always around us, if only we take care to look, like the simple beauty of the Red-winged Blackbird. This is a concept that applies to a rainy day, such as Tuesday, to frustrating moments, to challenging yoga poses, and of course, to the kitchen table. There is nourishment all around us, even where we don’t usually look, and this year, it seems, everywhere I turn. Here are some of my favorites:
After the cilantro leaves have shrunk, and the stems of the plant shoot skyward, and the plant seems to have lost its edibility, there comes an expected treasure—fresh coriander. More perfumed and infinitely more vibrant tasting than its dried counterpart, fresh coriander is the beautiful fruit of the Coriandrum sativum plant. The berries can be used freshly picked from the stems to accentuate dishes whole, or as I often like to do, mashed with a mortar and pestle with a little salt and oil. Even the highly pungent roots of this plant are edible, traditionally as a flavoring to south-east Asian curry dishes. Their ancestral roots, however, are placed in Israel with the earliest mericarps dated approximately 8000 B.C.
In the parking lot of the Food Co-op, there are several leggy-looking, but robust lemon verbena plants. These Aloysia Citrodora plants, native to Central and South America, smell kind of heavenly—crisp, citrus-like, and bright. One of my favorite things in the world to make is lemon verbena-honey gelato, but it also makes a wonderful tisane (infused with hot water), and can even be used in savory dishes. In addition to its lovely aroma, it has a medicinal use as an antifungal agent.
Also from Central and South America is the Nasturtium, or Tropaeolum. Nasturtium petals, all bright fire, have a nice, light peppery flavor, and can be found in abundance in gardens. The leaves are also edible.
There is a lowly-looking weed that I always remember growing in certain patches of the greenbelt. My mother would take stems of them back home on our way back from piano lessons, wash them, and serve them in cold salads, and they were nothing short of delectable. Purslane, or Portulaca oleracea, is an annual succulent with small yellow flowers that originated in North Africa, and has been in North America since pre-Columbian times. It is considered a weed, and you can still help yourself to them throughout the greenbelt.
Borage, Borago officinalis, is an herb that originated in Syria. The seeds are a highly nutritional source of gamma-linolenic acid, a compound used to treat inflammation and autoimmune disorders. The leaves have a cucumber-like flavor, but the real gem is the blossom, which has a honeyed flavor, fantastic in cocktails, tisanes, and desserts.
Rose geranium is a scented geranium that smells of roses and has a slight citrus aroma. It is perfect for baked goods and for imparting aromas when macerating fruit.
Loquat fruit, Eriobotrya japonica, is a member of the Rosacea family which includes roses, stone fruits, blackberries, and apples. This plant, native to southeastern China, despite its name, bears delicious fruits that are yellow-orange when they ripen in the early spring. This year, they are a little late in their arrival, but they are available in incredible abundance right now all over town.
Fig trees are not just for figs. The leaves are superbly scented, and are used in one of my favorite warm-weather dishes, halibut roasted in fig leaves. Peach leaves can also be used as a flavoring, though they can’t be heated (the heat releases strong tannic flavors), and they have a light bitter-almond flavor.
Fruit seeds are an often overlooked source of wonderful flavor. Cherry pits are so flavorful that they are left in the fruit for traditional clafoutis. When making jam or other recipes, the cherry pits can be placed in the mix in a sachet of cheesecloth for extra flavor, or saved in the freezer for infusions at a later time. The king of fruit pits is the heart of apricot pits, called noyaux, which has an exquisite almond aroma, is the flavoring of amaretto, and can be used in infusions or made into bitter almond extract.
Remember to keep your eyes open, and I guarantee that you will be amply rewarded—en route to the store, in the garden, and even in your discarded fruit scraps, you will find hidden beauty and a taste of that invincible summer.