Curly Dock and Balsamic Strawberry Tart: Monarchs and Matriarchs
There are some actions that seem to tap into my body, to live in my bones. Wordless desires, instinctual knowledge, and gut feelings all play into the feeling that I’m being guided in some way. And perhaps I am - by my ancestry. This is a story about those connections, seen through the lens of butterflies.
Somewhere in central Mexico, the leaves on the trees flutter in a peculiar way. They are rich orange, with black and white markings and darkened veins. Sometimes, these clusters of leaves release a couple of fluttering petals, catching the light of late afternoon sun.
That’s what overwintering monarch butterflies looks like. Can you picture all of those fluttering wings, covering the trees and dancing in the sunbeams? Right now, the monarchs are in their northern homes, pollinating flowers throughout North America, including here in the Pacific Northwest. Soon, they will begin their journey home.
Many fascinating creatures migrate - birds fly south for the winter, wales move to warmer waters, and salmon swim back upstream to spawn. But monarchs have a particularly unique way of doing it. Unlike the others on this list, monarchs do not complete their migration within one life cycle. Monarch butterflies make their way north every spring in multiple (usually 4 or 5) generations. They’ll land, reproduce, and die, leaving the next leg of their journey to their offspring. When it’s time to return to Mexico, a special kind of eggs are laid that produce a “Super Generation Monarch” that is larger, stronger, and longer-living than the generations before it. The hormones the butterflies use to navigate are also different in this butterfly, allowing it to make the journey back home to central America. These special monarchs live about 8x longer than other monarchs! Once their winter hibernation in Mexico comes to an end, their hormone production changes and they begin to reproduce and then die, once again entrusting their offspring to travel a leg of the journey on their own.
So how do the young monarchs freshly emerged from metamorphosis know where to go? Essentially, they access a map that’s stored in their DNA. It’s almost as if they can read a message from their great great great grandparents that left their winter home long before they were even born.
For millions of years, monarchs have been making this multi-generational journey to and from their homelands. They have existed in a large-scale pattern and ebb-and-flow of generations with the Super Generations punctuating their lifebeat.
Surprisingly, monarchs are not the only creatures that store memories in their DNA. The study of epigenetics in worms and mice has shown that learned aversions or responses to their environment can be passed down through multiple generations. Whether or not this is possible in humans is hotly-debated and difficult to study, particularly because of our longer life-spans and poor record keeping. Psychologists like Carl Jung have proposed the idea that the memories and experiences of our ancestors are coded into our DNA long before we are born. Some believe that inexplicable phobias may be related to traumas experienced by previous generations. What everyone seems to agree on, however, is that there is so much more to learn from this particular subject!
Imagine that your fondness of sour flavors was somehow coded into your body because fermented vegetables were a survival food for one of your ancestors. Or perhaps your fear of snakes is rooted in a life-threatening experience of a long-ago forefather. Where do we draw the line between nature and nurture? What behaviors have you learned from observation, and which ones are instinctual or automatic? These questions will undoubtedly continue to drive forward scientific exploration in the years to come. We are only just starting to know ourselves.
“The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved. It is a reality to be experienced.” - Aart van der Leeuw
When I forage, I feel like I am tapped into some primal energy. I feel a sense of peace and connection as I enter a flow state, plucking berries or grinding nuts. Even though I live in a world where the grocery store is just minutes away, I get caught up in the natural harvest rhythm of summer. I prepare for the cold days ahead through learned processes that echo with ghostly outlines. I can almost picture my peasant ancestors stocking their larder, just as I am doing, long before I was born.
Beginning in mid-late summer, tall rusty spires start to punctuate the golden foothills around my home. They belong to Rumex crispus, or ‘curly dock.’ This highly-fertile relative of buckwheat is considered an invasive weed in many areas, making its prolific bounty safe to gather and use. The little seedheads clinging onto their spires remind me of monarch wings on winter trees and the act of gathering them seems to appeal to something deeper than blood or bone. This is my return home.
A hearty dock-seed crust holds a yogurt base with balsamic-marinated strawberries. Some confectionary monarchs fluttering over the top give it a beautiful finishing touch. Plan ahead as the yogurt and strawberry filling requires some sitting time and the butterflies take a bit of time to create. The curly dock seed crust is hearty and wholesome, the perfect counterbalance to the vibrancy of balsamic-marinated strawberries.
Dock and Balsamic Strawberry Tart:
First: note on foraging curly dock seeds. Wait to harvest curly dock seeds until they are a rich rust brown and have started to dry out. Make sure you are confident in your identification and are harvesting Rumex crispus, and not a look-alike plant. Gather from areas away from roadsides and other sources of pollution or contamination. Pull the little seadheads from the stem and spread them out evenly on a baking sheet. Turn your oven to 350 and toast the seeds until they are dry, crunchy, and pleasantly fragrant, about 3-5 minutes if the seeds are dry. Be careful not to burn them. Grind the seeds, chaff and all, into flour using a spice grinder or food mill.
Curly Dock Seed Crust:
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. dock seed flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar (optional)
1/3-1/2 c. shortening
1/4 c. ice water
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. vinegar
Mix together the flour, dock seed flower, salt, and sugar. Cut in the shortening until mixture resembles fine bread crumbs.
Whisk together the egg yolk, ice water, and vinegar. Using a fork, whisk the flour mixture while gradually adding a bit of the liquid mixture until the dough comes together but is not sticky. Do not overmix.
Form the dough into a flattened 6” disc and refrigerate, covered, for at least an hour.
Roll the dough out gently and press into a tart pan, leaving the edges overlapping. Prick the bottom with a fork, then stick it into the freezer for 15 minutes to firm up. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425F.
Line the tart crust with parchment paper or aluminum foil and fill with pie weights. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove the weights and paper and bake another 3-5 minutes more, or until the crust is an even brown.
Remove from oven and immediately and gently trim the crust with a very sharp knife. Place the pan on a sturdy can and very carefully remove the pan’s sides. Let cool completely before filling.
Marinated Strawberries and Yogurt Fililng
1 quart of Greek yogurt
1 quart of fresh strawberries
¼ c. sugar
½ c. balsamic vinegar
Layer a few layers of cheesecloth together and scoop the yogurt into it. Pull up the sides around it and hang it above a bowl for a couple of hours to allow the yogurt to thicken.
Meanwhile, slice the strawberries into thin slices and toss them with the sugar and vinegar. Let sit for a couple of hours.
Spread the thickened yogurt in the bottom of the tart, then top with the strawberries. Decorate with confectionary monarch butterflies, if desired.
Sugar Paste sheets (I used the Wilton brand)
A pinch of saffron
½ tsp powdered hibiscus blossoms
Black edible food coloring pen
Dark and white chocolate
Edible luster dust, optional.
In a tiny bowl, infuse the saffron in ½ tsp. Almond extract. In another tiny bowl, mix the powdered hibiscus with another ½ tsp. Almond extract. Let sit for at least 10 minutes.
Cut the sugar paste sheet into rectangles about the size you want your finished butterflies to be. (This will make cutting them out a lot easier.)
Using a clean food-only paintbrush, paint the background of each sheet a nice orange by combining the saffron and hibiscus infusions. Let dry completely.
Draw your monarch butterfly using the edible food coloring pen. Cut out the shape of your butterfly.
Melt a little dark chocolate and put it into a piping bag with a very small tip. Prop the butterfly wings up on either side with some tissue paper or aluminum foil to give a slight bend and make the butterflies more realistic. Pipe the butterfly’s body and add any additional decorations you’d like, such as the veins on the wings. Use the white chocolate in a similar way to add spots to the edges of the wing. Let cool and harden
Give each butterfly a subtle dusting of edible luster dust for added dimensionality.
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