The Wildman

The Wildman in his natural habitat

His appearance is what you’d expect: utilitarian. The Wildman is wearing a long-sleeved blue windbreaker and khaki pants with multiple pockets. A strap holds a shovel and an iPad. A safari hat shades his face. His fingernails have already been in the soil.

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 “Take a quick look at my books and then we’ll get started,” he says. Several cooking and foraging books are laid out on the front window of his dusty car. As the parents get their kids’ jackets zipped and the snacks packed up, the Wildman breaks out in song, oddly, with his hands cupped to his face. It seemed to be an ancient “hand whistle” of sorts, but the sound is “pop, pop” and jazzy.

Steve Brill is a naturalist, environmental educator and author. He gained celebrity in 1986, when he was arrested in Central Park for eating a dandelion (MUST google). He studied pre-med at George Washington University but later changed his major to psychology, The Wildman is a self-taught botanist, forager, and vegan cook. He’s considered an expert in Northeastern plant identification and foraging.

My friend Susanne organized a home-school outing with Brill for a group of her friends and their children. The foraging tour was held at Fort Tilden. She invited me to tag along. I almost didn’t make it, but I’m so glad I did. Brill’s knowledge of native species is encyclopedic.

Our group was ready. Steve took the lead and we didn’t make it far before the first discovery. “Wait! stop, look over there!” Steve pointed to the ground. “That’s red clover!” We’ve all seen this small purple flower mixed in lawns or field grass. We each picked a flower and ate it. The plant tasted sweet and sugary. “It’s part of the pea family”. Brill explained. Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) can be used in green salads and teas. Brill further explained the medicinal uses – cancer prevention and help with digestion.

Poor Man’s Pepper (Lepidium virginicum) was next located. The taste is sharp, almost exactly like the pepper we buy in the store. It’s hard to identify, unlike Red Cover. To the common eye, in blends in with any grass. Poor Man’s Pepper is in the mustard family and native to North American. Due to lack of refrigeration, spices throughout history were used to mask the taste of “not-so-fresh” foods, the Wildman explained. But in the 1700’s when Columbus returned to Europe with Poor Man’s Pepper, the plant grew freely, allowing even the poor to use this tasty, needed spice.

Wildman Steve Brill ready to sample the bitter Winged Sumac. Make pink lemonade with this plant!
Winged Sumac

The afternoon continued. We identified and ate 9 other edible species in Fort Tilden – Winter Crest, Curly Dock, Wild Carrot, Bayberry, Autumn Olive Berry, Winged Sumac, Common Evening Primrose, Sea Lettuce and Rock Weed. I’ll discuss these edibles in a future column – you can count on it.

Steve Brill works with nature centers, schools, day camps, libraries, parks departments, land trusts and other organizations, to educate adults and children on foraging and the importance of protecting our environment. If your interested in a one-of-a-kind nature experience, contact Steve through his website: wildmanstevebrill.com or by email here. Follow his wild excursions around NYC on IG @wildmansteve. And if you’re a nature geek like myself, download his app Wild Edibles Forage, to help you identify over 250 North American plants right in our backyard!

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The Wildman in his native habitat,

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Red Clover

tagged in forage

Red Hot Chili Peppers

My column this week isn’t about the 90s funk-rock band out of L.A., rather I’m discussing the spicy, hot fruits that I grew in my garden this year.

cayenne peppers

It started this spring. I must have picked up a cayenne pepper plant by mistake or maybe it was mislabeled, who knows. I didn’t realize I had chili peppers growing in my garden until a few  weeks ago when they began turning red. All along I thought they were stunted shintos!

I found cayenne very easy to grow, unlike bell peppers* which I’ve had little luck with. I just watered the plant a few times a week and had some compost in the soil. You can harvest chili peppers when they’re green, but they will have less heat. The more red in color, the hotter they will taste. Keep in mind that cayenne pepper is stronger than Jalapeño. Eat with caution!

“Chili pepper” is a broad term. It is believed that there are close to fifty thousand cultivars! The peppers originate from central Mexico. They were brought to Spain and the rest of the world by Columbus in 1493. Their usage is worldwide and the peppers are found in just about every ethic  cuisine today. They come in all different fun shapes, colors, sizes and heat intensities.

Why do we like to torture our tongues and eat spicy foods?  Scientists theorize that humans eat hot food for the same reason we enjoy roller coasters or jumping into the icy cold ocean or even watching a tear-jerker movie. We seek out pain (heavy). More specifically, people can enjoy extreme sensations or fear if we know it poses low-risk. The chemical capsaicin is what makes hot peppers hot. The production of the compound is a natural defence mechanism for the plant, which prevents most mammals and insects from eating it. Interestingly, birds lack the sensors for capsaicin, therefore the fowl eat and spread the seeds in their droppings which helps to insure the survival of chilli peppers. Mother Nature is so smart — this stuff fascinates me!

chili paste

With my harvest, I decided to make a red hot chili pepper paste for use in various meals. Think marinated spicy hot peppers with sautéed shallots and garlic, all infused together in one condiment. After reading several recipes, I came up with my own variation, which I guarantee is FIRE!

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Paula’s Red Hot Chili Pepper Paste
(makes 1 1/2 cups)

Ingredients:

6 cayenne peppers
3 jalapeno peppers
1 red bell pepper (to cut some heat and add sweetness)
2 large chalets
5 cloves garlic
1 tomatillo (for tartness)
1 tablespoon loosely chopped cilantro
½ cup olive oil
Salt

Directions:

1. Chop all ingredients in a food processor
2. Heat the oil and then transfer the pepper mixture into a small saucepan. Cook on low for 20 minutes stirring occasionally. Let it cool.
3. Pour the mixture with the oil back into the food process and pulse for 30-40 seconds
4. Store in an airtight container, lasts up to three weeks.

I added the mixture to mayo for a creamy, spicy sauce. It was delicious on the burgers I made for dinner. The chili pepper sauce can be used in so many ways –  on tacos, Indian curry, marinated chicken breast – for some oomph, huevos rancheros, spicy red sauce. You get the point, enjoy!

*Fun food fact: green, yellow, orange and red bell peppers are the same fruit. The difference in appearance and flavor is due to the harvest time. Green being the earliest, red being the latest stage. The longer it’s on the vine, the sweeter it tastes.

For more follow me on Instagram – @theglorifiedtomato

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A Sweet New Year

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I went to school on Long Island and it was mostly Italian and Irish Catholic kids. There were a few Jewish and Indian children but to be frank, I wasn’t very aware of our differences, in particular with respect to religious beliefs. Of course, we read the Old Testament in CCD, but it didn’t click. I was very aware, though, that we got a bunch of days off from school because of Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah being one of them. And they say the school districts on Long Island are excellent?

This week I watched several videos of Greta Thunberg and read about the Climate Summit. It’s so inspiring to see the youth protesting; doing something meaningful; instead of being carted off to football and soccer practice. My high school experience was insular, just the opposite of Greta’s global exposure. The children are so bright today!

In college, meeting young people from many different backgrounds along with taking history and culture courses, I learned of other religions and the beauty of our diversities.

I few years back I had the opportunity to co-host Rosh Hashanah dinner with my friend Rachel Krieger and her family. I wrote about it in my column at the time. I  felt the weight of this responsibility, to host the first High Holy Day. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. It’s a time of reflection and repentance and the promise of new beginnings and renewal. I researched as much as I could about the traditions and prayers for the holiday and of course, the food customs. Like Italians, food plays a central role in many Jewish celebrations and observances.

With that, I would like to share a bit about the symbolism of some foods that are part of the ancient Rosh Hashanah tradition. The belief being, eating these foods with help ensure a good and sweet new year.**

Pomegranates are one of the Seven Species (special products of the of Israel) listed in the Hebrew bible. It’s considered the “new fruit” for the Shehechiyanu blessing (celebrating new and unusual experiences). Full of seeds, Jews hope to be filled similarly with many merits in the new year. Pomegranates are traditionally served on the second night of Rosh Hashanah.

Honey – for a sweet good new year. Apples are an accompaniment for dipping. Also, honey is used in other dishes such as glazed carrots, apple galette and other sweet treats like traditional honey cake.

Apples are described in Hebrew text, referring to the Garden of Eden as having the sweet scent of an orchard.

Beets. The Hebrew word for beets is “selek”,  similar to the word for “remove.” They’re eaten in the hopes that enemies will depart.

Fish. Rosh Hashanah translates to “head of the year,”. A head of a  sheep, rooster or more often a fish head is presented at dinner. It’s usually served today as a whole grilled fish. Always swimming, fish also represent hard work.

Challah is probably the most iconic. It’s braided egg bread. The round shape symbolizes continuity and the circle of the new year.

To my Jewish friends and neighbors, Shanah Tovah!

** sourced from Tasteofhome.com

tagged in holiday

Olives, a Dilapidated Park and My 10 Year Wedding Anniversary

Last week my husband and I celebrated our 10 year wedding anniversary. I can’t believe it’s been a decade, and on top of that, we’ve known each other for 18 years. Gosh, we were just kids! It was my sophomore year in college at Pratt when my friend Susie suggested we go to Rockaway to see her friend’s band, A Hundred Thousand play at Patrick’s on Beach 113th. Matt was on drums. There’s a video of this night floating around somewhere, believe it or not!

Fast forward to 2009. I was completely shocked when my boyfriend proposed. Being a no-frills Rockaway Irish guy, Matt suggested we have a casual BBQ at my sister’s house for the wedding. VERY long story short, it exploded into a full fledged Italian Long Island wedding complete with limos, white tents, fancy flowers and a catering truck in the driveway. We did slip passed my mother, DJ KOHO (aka Katie Honan) instead of some guinea duo blasting, “fist pumping” techo and a laser light show. The full-hour church ceremony with the dedication to our mothers and the Blessed Virgin goes without saying. It rained, as my mom predicted and warned, but it was an awesome, beautiful and memorable wedding nonetheless. It almost couldn’t have gone any other way.

We’ve been talking about plans for a big European getaway, maybe to Spain to mark the anniversary year but this past week we celebrated with various mini-dates around Rockaway.

IMG_5835  The way to my heart, antipasto complete with the best olives in town from Sorrentino's Market - 99-20 Rockaway Beach Blvd

On our anniversary, the 12th, my husband cooked dinner for me. I was coming home from The Wave late, Thursday is our close night (gotta get the papes out!). As I approached the house I saw eight huge mums (from Lisena Garden Center). He knows how much I love plants! Inside I discovered another gift, a fig tree!! Dinner was wonderful – linguine ratatouille.  The highlight though, was the antipasto and discovery that Sorrentino’s Market has the best olives in town. Matt bought several stuffed varieties to die for!

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Over the weekend we tried to go kayaking at the park on 87th but it was closed. Then I suggested we visit Jamaica Bay. I’ve never walked around east pond. Totally unprepared in flip flops, shorts and a tie dye tank top, I was mauled five yards into the trail by a military of mosquitoes. We had to turn back. It was looking like a failed attempt at a date when Matt thought as a last resort to visit the Park on 59th Street and the Bay. Not many know it’s there. Like most things in Rockaway, the park is rough around the edges. It’s hard to find the entrance and the paths aren’t clearly marked. We finally got in and walked around discovering a strange makeshift shack worthy of an instagram photo. We skipped past little crabs on the marshy pathway. There are two fishing piers, which is the highlight. A guy caught several blue crabs and was excited to show us his winnings. The docks are covered in shells from the seagulls dropping clams, their feast for dinner. The views of the bay off the piers are so beautiful, worth wading through all the ruggedness of the park. In a way the park reminded me of our wedding day, not perfect with the mud from the rain but so beautiful in so many ways.

The shack in 59th Street Park - so Romantic!

While I’m excited at the thought of traveling abroad this year, I love just hanging around Rockaway, discovering all it’s little secrets like a shack on the bay and the best parmesan stuffed olives on the peninsula.

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Previously published in The Wave

tagged in memories, olives