Miriam's Garden: Bees are buzzing in her bonnet

I don't have beehives in my garden. Friends do, but I've never considered it.

I do often consider the bees. The flowers and flowering plants that all of us grow in our unsprayed, organic gardens nourish them and provide a safe habitat. In my garden right now, the bees are buzzing around and collecting the nectar from the flowering, self-sowing Christmas basil and the raspberry bushes.

It's getting to be fall, even though the past days have been warm. The other afternoon it was so stormy that my plane bound for New York never left the Pittsburgh airport. I returned to the city. Ate a late lunch at Thin Man in the Strip District. Ordered my favorite beverage, a honey and lemon seltzer made with honey from Bedillion Farms in Hickory.

It seems everywhere I look these days I learn more about honey. September is National Honey Month. A company called Bee Raw is marketing a line of artisanal varietal honeys, which include blueberry from Maine, buckwheat from Washington State and wild black sage from California. To be sold at Anthropologie stores and Whole Foods in time for gift giving.

Looking for honey produced a little closer to home? Check out neighborhood farmers markets and get to know your local beekeepers, says Stephen Repasky, president of Burgh Bees and the owner of Meadowsweet Apiaries. Most of the honey produced in our area, especially by small or urban beekeepers, is not a single varietal, meaning from a single flower, flower field (wildflowers) or plant source. Instead it's a mixture of all the abundance of flowering plants and trees.

Generally, local beekeepers collect honey after each season. And while it may not be labeled this way for sale, each season's honey has specific flavors and colors. Spring honey is light-colored with citrus highlights. Summer honey is white or amber highlighting floral notes. Fall honey is very dark, rich and full-bodied with a robust flavor.

"Compare them to Miller Light, Yuengling and Guinness," said Mr. Repasky.

He explained that the mission of Burgh Bees is to "promote beekeeping as a vital part of sustainable agriculture in Pittsburgh and its suburbs." The organization teaches basic bee-keeping skills and helps more experienced apiarists expand their skills. The group has monthly meet-ups to socialize and buzz about all things bees. The next one is from 7 to 9 p.m. on Sept. 24 at South Side's Carson City Saloon.

Burgh Bee's next Beekeeping 101 class will be held from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on two consecutive Saturdays: Oct. 26 and Nov. 2. (email: info@burghbees.com).

Mr. Repasky urges people to grow pollinator plants organically -- even just a few flowers -- to keep the bees buzzing and happy. Bee colony collapse, a widespread die-off of bees, is real and has been linked to pesticides.

The buzz that got the bees into my bonnet was Marie Simmons' gorgeously sticky new book, "A Taste of Honey: The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Cooking with 40 Varietals. " It's packed with tips and recipes, from sweet to savory, utilizing honey in delicious and unique preparations.

In a phone conversation, she explained that most baking and cooking she does with milder-flavored honeys, such as orange-blossom or clover honey, although she gives some suggestions for special honeys to use in each recipe. She wants us to break out of the one-honey-fits-all box and explore the different flavors that are possible.

Her recipe for Honey Butter provides a great way to experiment with different honey flavors. She suggests avocado, fireweed or Tupelo honey. The recipe lets the character of the honey shine through. Because they're produced from one plant source, varietals are more nuanced and exotic. Lovely flavors such as chestnut or rosemary honey or Ms. Simmons' favorite, star thistle, the flavors of which would be muted by heat. Use them as finishing honeys, she said. Drizzle them over fruit, or try some of her favorite honey and cheese pairings. Here are a few to whet your imagination:

Sicilian lemon-blossom honey with Rove des Garrigues (a tangy fresh goat cheese). Lavender honey with burratta or ricotta. Pine honey with smoked blue cow cheese or an aged cheddar.

Ms. Simmons told me that after writing this book, she fell in love with bees. She lived for many years in Brooklyn, but now, she and her husband reside on the West Coast. She is planning on getting bees and producing her own honey. In the spring, when it's warmer. They'll pollinate her newly planted vegetable garden and commune, perhaps, with her flock of city chickens.

Skies finally cleared, I again boarded a plane for New York, a copy of "A Taste of Honey" in my hands. My seatmate, a very nice gentleman from Long Island. noticed the book and told me about yet another use for honey. Not quite as delicious as some.

A paint chemist, he uses honey, along with other compounds such as glycerin, to keep commercial paint flexible. The blue paint that's used on new tires. The honey keeps it soft and flowing and provides a barrier to other chemicals. Don't tell the bees!

A garden tour

Burgh Bees runs a community apiary in Homewood with hives and a pollinator garden. The garden is planted with native species. The next tour of the garden, which would be a great way to teach kids about the wonders of nature, is at 1 p.m. on Sept. 29. RSVP encouraged to lynnettam@burghbees.com.

Chicken Cutlets with Honey, Lemon and Ginger Sauce and Ginger-Honey Walnuts

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This was terrific. Look for thin-sliced chicken breasts at the meat counter, sometimes called cutlets. They'll speed the prep. Marie Simmons likes to use star thistle honey which adds "a distinctive taste." Or a full-bodied, floral one such as lemon or orange-blossom or clover honey.

For ginger-honey walnuts

  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

  • 1 small garlic clove, grated

  • 1/2 cup walnut halves

  • 1 tablespoon honey

  • 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt

For lemon chicken

  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast halves (or thin-sliced chicken breasts)

  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour

  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (I needed a couple of tablespoons more oil for frying)

  • 1 teaspoon grated ginger

  • 1 garlic clove, grated

  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

  • 1/4 cup chicken broth

  • 2 tablespoons honey

  • 1 thinly sliced scallion (I used chives)

To make walnuts: put oil, ginger and garlic in small skillet. Slowly heat over medium-low heat until garlic sizzles. Add walnuts and honey. Cook on medium heat 2 to 3 minutes, reducing heat if needed, until honey boils and sticks to walnuts, and walnuts turn golden. Sprinkle with salt, adjusting to taste. Transfer to small dish or sheet of foil; don't put on paper towels because they will stick.

With sharp knife, slice through chicken breast through at thickest part to make 8 cutlets (or use thin sliced breasts). Place on piece of plastic wrap; season with salt and pepper, and cover with another sheet of plastic wrap. Gently but firmly pound with meat mallet or heavy skillet to even thickness of 1/4 to 1/3 inch.

Spread flour on large plate. Lightly dredge cutlets in flour, shake off excess.

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in large, broad skillet until hot enough to sizzle. Add cutlets a few at a time and cook 1 to 2 minutes per side, until lightly browned. As they are cooked, transfer to platter and cover with foil to keep warm.

Discard oil in skillet and let it cool slightly. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil, ginger and garlic to skillet. Heat and stir over medium-low heat just until garlic sizzles. Add lemon juice, chicken broth and honey. Heat, stirring to loosen browned bits on bottom of skillet, about 3 minutes, until mixture boils and thickens. Pour over chicken, sprinkle with walnuts and scallions and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

-- Adapted from "A Taste of Honey: The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Cooking with 40 Varietals" by Marie Simmons (Andrews McMeel, 2013, $19.99)

Peaches with Honey and Mint

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Make this with the last of the local peaches. If none can be found, Marie Simmons suggests that you can make it with nectarines, strawberries or any combination of fresh fruit. She likes to use floral honey, such as acacia, clover, orange, lemon, blackberry, raspberry blossom or tupelo. A summer honey would also be fantastic.

  • 3 to 4 medium size peaches

  • 3 tablespoons honey

  • 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (I used lemon juice)

  • 1 tablespoon torn fresh mint leaves

Peel peaches by placing in a saucepan half-filled with boiling water for about 1 minute, or until the skins are loosened. Transfer to bowl of ice water and slip off skins with paring knife. Halve and pit the peaches, then cut into thin slices.

Gently combine peach slices, honey, lime juice and mint. Taste and add more lime juice, if needed, to balance the flavors.

Makes 4 servings.

-- Adapted from "A Taste of Honey: The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Cooking with 40 Varietals" by Marie Simmons (Andrews McMeel, 2013, $19.99)

Banana, Honey and Pecan Bread

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I didn't have whole-wheat flour, so I used all white flour. And the only ripe bananas I had were frozen. Did you ever try that? Pop the overripe bananas into a freezer bag and thaw when you need them on the counter or in the fridge. Peel them and they become very mushy, just the way you want them. But my bananas were cold. Which brings up one of Marie Simmons' tips about baking with honey. If the eggs, butter, and liquid used aren't all room temperature, the batter might curdle in the mixing process. Mine did; it still baked just fine.

And another tip about baking with honey, it acts as a humectant and draws in moisture. So on a humid day, this bread or a honey cake might get very moist. Probably best to keep it well wrapped or in an airtight container.

  • 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • 1/2 cup lightly packed light brown sugar

  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature

  • 1/2 cup honey (suggestions are orange blossom, clover or for a fuller flavor, buckwheat honey)

  • 1 cup mashed ripe banana (about 2 bananas)

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

  • 1 cup whole-wheat flour

  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder, sifted

  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, sifted

  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter a 9-by-5-by-3-inchloaf pan.

Put butter and brown sugar in bowl of stand mixer and beat until light and fluffy. Gradually add honey in slow, steady stream. Add eggs, one at time, beating well after each. On lowest speed, beat in the bananas and vanilla.

In separate bowl, mix flours, cinnamon, baking powder, baking sod and salt. On low speed, gradually add dry ingredients to butter mixture until blended. Fold in pecans with rubber spatula. Scrape batter into pan and smooth it into corners.

Bake 45 minutes, mine took about 10 more minutes, until top is browned, edges pull away from sides and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan on wire rack. Run small metal spatula around edges and turn out onto plate or cutting board.

Makes 1 loaf.

-- Adapted from "A Taste of Honey: The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Cooking with 40 Varietals" by Marie Simmons (Andrews McMeel, 2013, $19.99)

Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com and on Twitter @mmmrubin.


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