Select Page

Excerpted from 66 Square Feet – A Delicious Life by Marie Viljoen

{{ image(3366, {“class”: “fill round”, “width”:1000, “height”:544,”method”: “img”}) }}

Average temperatures: 61°F/44°F

April is what the cold world has been waiting for.

We range far and wide, riding all the way to the ends of every subway line. And then we take the bus — for the love of open spaces, flowers, and things green (and, often, edible). Everywhere, we are flanked by the white callery pear blossom that is synonymous with April on New York’s streets.

{{ image(3364, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”:362, “height”:300,”method”: “img”}) }}In Pelham Bay in the Bronx we walk in the forest near the water and the rocky islands of the Long Island Sound and find drifts of tiny white flowers under the trees in the fallen leaves. They are cutleaf toothwort, an increasingly rare native wildflower. Nearby is a pocket of anemones on stems like threads. The ranunculus cups of invasive lesser celandine are a brilliant yellow beside the path. In this forest, still rustling with winter’s leaves, there are few people to be seen, other than a clump of birdwatchers with mammoth lenses waiting for a greater horned owlet to raise its fluffy head from a shattered stump that rises twenty feet tall above the floor of the greening woods. We picnic on bread and paté on a rocky outcrop, sipping our air-chilled sauvignon blanc. On the walk back I stop to kneel beneath the tall hollow canes of last year’s Japanese knotweed and cut big bunches of the new, succulent shoots that sprout from each cluster near the beach. The fragile white candy- striped flowers of spring beauty crowd the grass near our bus stop.

At the opposite end of the city, in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I make an annual pilgrimage to see the gentle unfolding of the cloaks that wrap each bloodroot stem in the Native Garden. It is a drama in miniature. Every small white flower blooms alone, wrapped in modesty. Later, the leaves of trout lilies here and in Central Park’s Ramble form spotted mats beneath fragile stalks supporting the fulvous flowers. These ephemerals belong to a delicate, indigenous spring, still surprisingly alive — though under great pressure — in wilder parks and careful gardens. They disappear as the forest leafs out and its shade sends them back into the warming earth.

I cross the road and wander in the woods of Prospect Park, finding, off the path and among the weedy garlic mustard flowers, carpets of blue violets, entirely hidden from passersby. Unable to restrain myself, I gather a posy. The last time I held such a fragrant bunch was after picking deep purple violets from under the lilac tree in my mother’s garden, on Paul Roux Street in Bloemfontein. The feeling is no different. I wrap their slender stems carefully in a leaf and they ride home with me on the subway, lasting for days in the apartment and thrilling me every time I see them.

At Dead Horse Bay we scout the sand for old glass bottles. This was a garbage dump until the middle of the last century and yields attractive treasure as the bay’s tides eat the landfill away. On land, white beach plum blossom is like foam on its tangled branches and autumn olive saturates the sea air with scent. We turn to the grassy pathways to scout for pokeweed and find its supple young stems perfect for cutting. Wild lettuce grows in tender and emerald clumps. There are common milkweed shoots, too, and we bring home the ingredients for a slew of new dishes after picnicking on the grass.

Surrounding these quiet woodland and shoreline lives, the roar of an imported spring grows. Magnolias, their limbs heavy with waxy blooms, lead the way —Ava Gardners to the Audrey Hepburns and Brigitte Bardots of the woods and water. Confettied cherry blossoms, early and late, pale and flushed, erupts before and after the magnolias’ profusion. Parks that have been empty and contemplative for months seethe with people luxuriating beneath pink Kanzan canopies — beside the reservoir in Central Park and on the Cherry Esplanade at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden where voluptuous peonies hold court next door. On Carroll Street, one neighborhood downstream of Cobble Hill, the frilled petals of the cherries turn a brownstone corner at sundown to glowing rose. In Boerum Hill, and all the Villages, bunches of wisteria drip from fire escapes and townhouses.

My mother comes to visit from Cape Town. She would like to see New York in spring. I take her to the farmers’ market at Union Square, where mounds of electric microgreens, foraged nettles, and yellow flowers from winter’s brassicas nestle beside the first bouquets of ramps —white, garnet, and green and tied with twine. Spears of early asparagus are stacked in bunches, crates high. Local lilac, ranunculus and red, and purple and cerise anemones create bottlenecks of shoppers hungry for real flowers.

{{ image(3367, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”:441, “height”:300,”method”: “img”}) }}We visit the Conservancy Gardens in the northeast corner of Central Park, where there is as much spring within easy reach as it is possible to fit. Massed collections of yellow and cream daffodils ricochet off blue, musky-scented grape hyacinths. Around them the more subtle yellows and greens of native plantings wrap the hedged formal garden. The hedge itself is in bloom and loud with bees browsing the ilex flowers. The famous circle of tulips around the iron fountain is lilac and purple with splashes of fuchsia and yellow. After a picnic of farmers’ market asparagus and mayonnaise, prosciutto, and a hidden bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, eaten and sipped in a cathedral of old crabapple trees in full bloom, my mother, the gardener, says decidedly: This is one of the wonders of the world.

And it is. All we can see is blossom. Branches meet above us to reveal one scrap of cobalt sky. Petals drift to the flagstones at our feet. The air is filled with the icy spice of crabapple. Sitting quietly, all we can hear is the ascending peep of a migrating songbird’s call in the flowers that obscure the world beyond us.

Forager’s Sidebar…
Japanese Knotweed Soup

When cooked in moist heat, knotweed collapses into a lemony creaminess reminiscent of sorrel. It is an adaptable vegetable and I use it in slow-cooked curries, arrange it beneath chickens, and add it to lamb shank pot roasts.

Pick fat, juicy shoots up to about 16 inches (40 cm) tall. Avoid skinny shoots as they are too fibrous to be pleasant. The young leaf tips are delicious, too. Knotweed, like sorrel and spinach, is high in oxalic acid, so avoid it if you have kidney problems. If you have no knotweed, substitute four 4 cups (220 g) of shredded, loosely -packed sorrel.

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 cup (80 g) finely chopped shallots
  • 4 cups (340 g) skinned and sliced knotweed, joints discarded
  • 2 small potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 4 cups (1 L) hot chicken or vegetable stock
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • heavy cream, for serving (optional)

In a pot, melt the butter till until it foams. Add the shallots and cook gently tuntil they are translucent. Add the knotweed and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes until the color of the knotweed changes from fresh green to drab khaki. Add the potatoes and the stock and cook until the potato slices are tender, about 10 minutes. Allow the mixture to cool, then purée it in batches in a blender. Strain each batch through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl. Return the soup to the stove and heat till until simmering, then season to taste. A swirl of cream before serving is never a bad idea.

Lamb Roasted with Ramps and Anchovies

This lamb starts life as a humid pot roast, transforming halfway through cooking to a regular roast. The anchovies that are spiked into the meat dissolve dissolve into a rich brininess, eventually combining with the red wine and sweet ramps sizzling in the bottom of the pan to make a wonderful juice. While the lamb is resting, slices of bread are fried lightly in a skillet and then rubbed with a raw ramp bulb. Served alongside the meat, they absorb its sauce, while their crisp crusts provide a fragrant crunch with each juicy mouthful.

Serves Four

  • 2 bunches of ramps (about 20 ramps)
  • 6 anchovy fillets
  • 1 leg of lamb (about 6 lbs / 2.7 kg)
  • 6 anchovy fillets
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups (480 ml) red wine
  • 12 slices of baguette or 6 slices of a loaf, halved into triangles
  • 1/2 cup (120ml) olive oil, for frying

Preheat the oven to 400°F (/200°C).

Cut the bulbs of about six 6 ramps into thin slivers. Cut each anchovy in half. Using a very sharp, small knife, cut one 1-inch inch-deep (2.5-cm) slits in the top and sides of the lamb in a dozen places. Stuff half an anchovy and a couple of ramp slivers into each slit, using the knife point to push them in. Place the lamb in a roasting pan, season with salt and pepper, and pour the red wine into the pan. Arrange all btu one of the ramps around the lamb. Cover with a lid or loosely tent with foil  and place in the oven. After an hour, remove the lid or foil tent.  Continue roasting for 1 hour more. If the red pan shows any sign of drying out, add some water (a high-frequency sizzle from the oven is my clue that more liquid is needed).

Remove the lamb from the oven and leave in its dish to rest for 15 minutes. While the leg is resting, heat ¼ cup (60 ml) of the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Fry the baguette or bread in two batches, using the second ¼ cup (60 ml) of oil for the second batch, until pale golden. Rub each hot slice of bread with the bulb of the remaining raw ramp. Wrap the bread in a large napkin and set aside on a plate to keep warm.

Transfer the rested lamb to a warm serving platter along with the ramps. Pour the pan juices into a small saucepan over medium-high heat until warmed, then decant the liquid into a small heatproof jug or pitcher for serving at the table.

Serve slices of the lamb with bread and ramps alongside and a generous drizzle of juice.