Category Archives: Spring

Elderflower Cordial

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Gathering elderflowers with my dear friend Rebecca

I fell head-over-heels for elderflower cordial many years ago when I lived in London. The delicate, muscat-flavored syrup may be used in cocktails and desserts, but the simplest, most sublime way to enjoy it is with sparkling water. I love elderflower soda, each sip blooming with the essence of spring and summer. Now that I make my own elderflower cordial, the associations are not just with my time in England, but also the lovely days and places where I foraged the blossoms here in Southern California.

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Many other creatures depend on elderflowers; forage responsibly!

Black elder trees (Sambucus nigra, also known as European elder) grow throughout Europe and North America, typically in sunny locations. Here in Southern California, we also have an abundance of blue elder (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea, also known as Sambucus mexicana or Mexican elder). When foraging, pick flower heads that are fully open with sweet smelling white or cream colored blossoms (brown ones can have the musky odor of cat urine!) and shake off any insects. Once you get home, do another insect inspection and separate the flowers from the stems using your fingers. If you’re like me, keep sniffing your fingers as you go along, marveling at how they’re covered in magically fragrant elderflower dust.

To make a cordial, steep the flowers plus lemons (some people also add oranges) and citric acid (used as a preservative) in a sweetened syrup. Traditionally one uses sugar, which has a more neutral sweetness, but this year I used honey and personally I liked it even better. Different recipes call for leaving the mixture to sit for one to five days before straining; I usually go for about two. To use the syrup, dilute it to taste in still or sparkling water, or try it in cocktails, drizzled over cake, ice cream, etc.

Elderflower Cordial – Sugar Version

Makes about about 10 cups

25 elderflower heads
2 unwaxed organic lemons, sliced
1 tablespoon citric acid
8 cups sugar
2 quarts water

Shake the elderflower heads to remove any dirt or insects. Separate the flowers from the stalks, trying to remove as much of the stems as you can (a few are fine, but too many can be toxic). Place the flowers in a large bowl with the lemon slices and citric acid.

Bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Let cool to lukewarm. Pour the syrup on top of the elderflowers and lemons and stir to combine.

Cover the bowl with a clean towel and let stand for 1-3 days, depending on taste. Strain and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Elderflower cordial also freezes well; to freeze, pour into freezer-safe containers leaving 1/2-inch headspace to allow for expansion.

elderflowers

Elderflower Cordial – Honey Version

Makes about about 10 cups

25 elderflower heads
2 unwaxed organic lemons, sliced
1 tablespoon citric acid
4 cups honey
6 cups water

Shake the elderflower heads to remove any dirt or insects. Separate the flowers from the stalks, trying to remove as much of the stems as you can (a few are fine, but too many can be toxic). Place the flowers in a large, heatproof bowl with the lemon slices, citric acid, and honey.

Bring the water to a boil. Pour the water into the elderflower bowl and stir to dissolve the honey.

Cover the bowl with a clean towel and let stand for 1-3 days, depending on taste. Strain and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Elderflower cordial also freezes well; to freeze, pour into freezer-safe containers leaving 1/2-inch headspace to allow for expansion.

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Spring in Griffith Park

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I spend so much time hiking on the outskirts of town that I sometimes forget one of the nation’s largest city parks is practically in my backyard. Griffith Park is a sprawling urban wilderness — not quite as serene as our favorite “getaway” trails, but there’s still much to learn and appreciate. While Gregory goes trail running, I poke around in the woodlands and chaparral…

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(left) London rocket (Sisymbrium irio) – A member of the mustard family with spicy, pungent leaves. A bite of this will jolt your tastebuds if you’re feeling sluggish on the trail!

(right) Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) – I haven’t foraged for this yet, but I recently learned that the leaves and roots are eaten in Korean cuisine, where it’s known as naengi.

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California everlasting/cudweed (Gnaphalium californicum) – I am developing quite a love affair with the dreamy, maple syrupy fragrance of this plant. I’m just learning to use it in food and medicine, so more to come!

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(left) Lupine (Lupinus longifolius, maybe?) – Some varieties of lupin seeds are edible, but I haven’t delved into this world yet. Lupines always make me smile, though, as they remind me of my home state flower, the Texas bluebonnet.

(right) California bluebells/wild canterbury bells (Phacelia minor) – Can cause dermatitis similar to poison oak, but it sure is pretty springing forth from the rocky ledges.

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Griffith Park wildlife in action.

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(left) Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) – This nettle is starting to seed, which can be used for food and medicine. My friend Rebecca at Cauldrons & Crockpots has a nice monograph on nettle.

(right) Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea) – It’s disconcerting how early in the season the flowers are blooming (an effect of climate change?), but I am looking forward to making elderflower cordial and champagne soon.

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Finally, if you need a dose of human culture, you can always climb up to the Griffith Observatory, pay homage to the bust of James Dean, and imagine that you’re watching a teenage knife fight … or am I the only one under the age of 70 who does that? :)

{Note: This blog is meant to inspire, not serve as an identification or field guide. If you decide to forage yourself, make absolutely sure you know what you’re picking, and make your own decisions about where and how you gather.}

Taste of the Neighborhood

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Before I moved to Los Angeles, I pictured the city as most people probably do, full of freeways and sprawl and plastic surgery clinics and unnatural sheen. It’s true; we have plenty of those things. But that’s not my LA. My LA is the land of secret stairs, of meandering walks, and hillsides laden with nasturtiums and wild fennel. My LA is expansive yet charming, urban yet natural … and, if you know how to look, filled with growing things to nibble on.

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Today my neighborhood walk takes me up and down three of Silver Lake’s historic staircases (originally built in the 1920s so pedestrians could reach the city’s streetcars) as well as some of my usual detours into abandoned and empty lots. The sounds of civilization are never far off, yet I can almost get lost in these hills as I peek around new corners and check on my favorite spots for edible weeds or public fruit.

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Everywhere spring is evident, from the soft young fennel fronds to the verdant miner’s lettuce and patches of wood sorrel humming with the dance of bees. It’s because of these all-important bees that I pluck just a few of the bright yellow sorrel flowers. As much as I love their tart, lemony flavor, I’ll leave them for the pollinators.

Foraging for a morning snack isn’t a necessity for me; I have a well-stocked pantry at home a few blocks away, and I’m still learning about all the local creatures that truly rely on these plants for food, shelter, and egg-laying habitats. Yet it does fill my spirit to at simply taste what grows around me, to become closer to my environment and have it become part of me in such a direct way.

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As my walk draws to a close, I sit on my favorite hillside overlooking the neighborhood and tuck into this week’s treats: nasturtium leaves and blossoms, dandelion leaves, fennel fronds, cleavers, wood sorrel leaves and blossoms, and miner’s lettuce. My “salad” needs no dressing, as the flavors are so vibrant on their own: peppery, bitter, sweet, tart, green. I play with my food, eating the leaves and flowers in various combinations to create new tastes – each little bite a different expression of LA.

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{Note: If you decide to forage yourself, make absolutely sure you know how to identify what you’re picking. In urban environments, you also want to avoid roadsides and dog pee (or worse!). I will share some recommended foraging resources and field guides in a future post.}