As I write this, a big pot of elderflower champagne is fermenting away in the corner. Its bubbling noises permeate the quiet of my living room. Its a familiar kind of thing, comfortable, like having an old friend snoring in a chair. Tomorrow I'll put it in a carboy and let it ferment for a bit longer, and then I'll bottle it in champagne bottles and painstakingly wait. More about this process soon, most likely nest week. In the meantime, lots of things are happening. That class that I was so nervous about? It went well. Spiffingly well. Heart-soaringly well. Jump-up-and-down squealing kind of well. I think that public speaking terror can be overcome entirely by making sure one is speaking on a topic that one is well and truly infatuated with. In this case, I was talking about elderflowers, in an outdoor fort created by a big willow tree. And there's another class this coming weekend, at the Roots of Healing Herb Fest. If you’re in Los Angeles, please come-- it’ll be a wonderful day chock a block full of interesting classes. Mine? Mine is on five local plants that I use in my practice, with a little intro about why I think its so important to use local flavours. You know, stuff I could talk about for hours...
And speaking of local flavours, I’ve been playing around with a few things lately:
- Herbes De Californie is being re-stocked as we speak (as I type?). A frantic spring of gathering white sage, black sage, rose petals, bay leaves, and sagebrush. This is my stronghold, my go-to-best-friend of a spice mix. The thing that makes it onto every roast and every pizza and every side. Because of this, I’m usually out by November, and needless to say, the finishing of it usually results in minor tears. I am so happy to have it back.
- California sweet everlasting, one of my all time favourite smells, is working its way into an experimental mead. Am excited and nervous to see how this one goes. Wish me luck?
- Currants. Its such a simple little thing, but when I was leafing through Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I realised that one of the staples of Middle Eastern cooking is dried fruit. All of these cuisines that have such rich, exotic and frankly delicious histories utilise a combination of flavours, and I like that dried fruit provide the sweetness or the tang in the Middle East. A couple of days later I was out wandering in the wilderness as I’m often prone to do and stumbled upon this season’s first wild currants. Usually I bake with them because, well, I’m me, and I like anything sweet, but with the dried fruit thing in mind, I brought them home and set them out in the sun to dry. Once they were dry I put them in a jar and labelled them, and they sat there next to my gathered pine nuts and gathered acorns and store bought dates and apricots. I know that drying fruit is not remotely a novel concept, but to me, in that moment, it was a revelation. After said revelation I promptly cooked them all into my favourite rice dish. Rice, saffron, mixed herbs, sun dried berries, its perfect, and pretty simple to make.
I've been eating this rice in a multitude of different ways. My favourite is with chicken, hot off the barbecue, its flesh infused with that hot charcoal smoke flavour, drizzled with a yogurt and garlic sauce. My second favourite is on its own, with more of that yogurt sauce, and a handful of whatever fresh vegetables I can find in the fridge-- usually right now its a mixture of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes. Its also perfect with lamb, and flank steaks with a grape leaf chimichurri sauce.
Ottolenghi's book has some steps that I've eliminated because I just didn't notice such a dramatic difference as to warrant, say, mixing in the saffron at the end into half the rice, so that its a pretty blend of white and yellow. I happen to like the colour yellow and so I mix it in at the beginning, where I can forget about it. Other than that, its pretty similar. No foraged currants that you painstakingly sundried on your own? The original recipe calls for barberries, which I have stocked in the pantry at all timof es anyway. You can get them at a Persian market or online at Mountain Rose Herbs. You can also use dried oregon grape berries which I have done and found delicious. And if you have none of these and desperately need to make this now, use dried currants, though I do warn you that they won't be as tangy, wild tasting or exotic.
Herbed saffron rice with sun dried local currants. Adapted loosely from Jerusalem
2 tb butter 2 cups basmati rice 2 1/3 cups boiling water 1 tsp saffron soaked in 3 tbsp boiling water for about 30 mins 1/4 cup dried currants or barberries small handfuls of herbs: bee balm, tarragon, cilantro, parsley-- about a cup total, all chopped finely. salt and pepper 1/2 cup crushed pistachios (optional-- I've both used and not-used them and both ways are good)
Melt the butter, in a saucepan and throw in the rice. Stir to make sure they're all coated with butter, then add the saffron water, and about 15 seconds later, the rest of the water. Add salt and pepper (about 1/2 teaspoon of each), cover tightly and reduce the heat to a very slow simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes then remove from the heat, stir in the currants or barberries, and cover with a towel and then the lid again. Leave off the heat, like this, steaming for another ten minutes, then take off the lid and stir in the chopped herbs. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper as need be. Transfer to a serving dish, and sprinkle with pistachios. Serve either hot or at room temperature.