Archives For Nancy Clifton

Cornucopia 101

Nancy Clifton —  November 25, 2013 — Leave a comment

It’s a big week for cooking, for getting out the china, crystal, and silver, and for setting a holiday-worthy table…but have you thought about a centerpiece yet?

A cornucopia, or horn of plenty, is a classically beautiful, easy, and crowd-pleasing way to pull together a centerpiece without a lot of fuss or expense. Last year I taught a fall cornucopia class, and last week I had the pleasure of appearing on WGN-TV with tips for making an edible fruit-and-vegetable cornucopia. This week, I thought I’d share a few tips that both cornucopias have in common.

Whether you’re using flowers or fruit or vegetables, the process of assembling a cornucopia is basically the same. Once your supplies are gathered, it should take less than an hour to put together.

Essential tools include pruners, floral foam, and a hot glue gun.

Essential tools include pruners, floral foam, and a hot-glue gun.

Gather the basic tools.

Horn-shaped cornucopia baskets are readily available at craft and hobby stores. In addition to a basket, you’ll need pruners, floral picks, a hot-glue gun, a small plastic liner tray that fits into the front of the basket, and a chunk of floral foam that fits into the tray. If you’re using fresh flowers, prepare the floral foam by soaking it in water.

Ingredients for a fall cornucopia include apples, leaves on branches, gourds, and fall flowers.

Ingredients for a fall cornucopia include apples, leaves on branches, gourds, and fall flowers.

Gather the bountiful ingredients.

No two cornucopias are the same; the ingredients will vary, of course, according to availability and personal taste.

For a fall cornucopia, your ingredient list might be: millet, wheat, gourds or mini-pumpkins, flowering kale, dried artichoke, green apples, stems of hypericum, a small bunch of long-stemmed mums, sunflowers with long stems, baby corn, dried yarrow, sweetgum leaves on a twig with seedpods, and a variety of nuts.

For an edible cornucopia, your ingredient list might be: an assortment of apples and nuts, Indian corn, pumpkins and squash in various shapes and sizes, and a bunch of fall flowers (widely available at grocery stores).

To begin, position the largest items by inserting floral picks into each and anchoring it in the foam.

To begin, position the largest items by inserting floral picks into each and anchoring them in the foam.

Assemble the base.

Set the floral foam (dry for fruits/vegetables, wet for fresh flowers) into the small tray and into the forward portion of the cornucopia basket. Anchor the foam on a prong if desired.

Starting with the largest material—pumpkins, gourds, large corncobs, and large sunflowers. Insert floral picks and position them in the foam. Heavy, rounded items should be at the bottom, toward the front.

Build up the layers with smaller items and flower clusters filling in the gaps.

Build up the layers, with smaller items and flower clusters filling in the gaps.

Layer in the smaller items.

Add picks to apples, dried artichokes, and small gourds. Layer them singly at angles to the heavy items. Try to cover the corners of the floral foam.

Next, layer in fresh or dried flowers, using them in small bunches rather than individual stems. Insert some leaning high and toward the back of the basket, and others leaning low and toward the front, creating extension and depth.

Notice how heavier items like pumpkins, cabbage, and apples are forward and low.

Notice how heavier items like pumpkins, cabbage, and apples are forward and low.

Fill in the gaps.

Add hypericum or mums in clusters to hide empty spots. Then add single flowers as needed to help pull all the elements together. A finished cornucopia has height, balance, and both forward and backward movement.

Finish with millet for “line,” plus foliage and nuts. (The glue gun comes in handy for attaching nuts to floral picks.) The overall effect should be one of spilling bounty.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Caps Off for the Mushroom

Nancy Clifton —  August 31, 2013 — 1 Comment

Interest in mushrooms is, if you’ll excuse the expression, mushrooming, as growing numbers of people seek food from local, sustainable—and even foraged—sources. Thanks to a vibrant network of farmers’ markets and an expanded offering of mushrooms sprouting up in the produce section of grocery stores, most of us can lay our hands on an interesting variety of mushrooms without heading out on a mushroom hunt in the woods.

The most commonly available mushrooms are white buttons, baby bellas, and portobellos. Some wild varieties—such as oyster mushrooms with their wonderful almost fishy fragrance—are now being cultivated and sold in supermarkets, while others appear seasonally in open markets. I’m always happy to see one of my fall favorites—hen of the woods—among the autumnal produce at the farmers’ market, and local mushroom hunters sometimes supply the markets with morels in May.

PHOTO: farfalle pasta with mushrooms and herbs.

Farfalle with fresh mushrooms and a sprinkling of herbs hits the spot.
Photo: Kasey Albano

Mushrooms can add flavor and texture—and a surprising nutritional punch—to many meat dishes, but are robust enough to carry a hearty, vegetarian meal. Portobellos are a particularly good substitute for meat patties. Lightly brush the caps with olive oil and grill them, first on the gill side, then on the cap side. Remove when tender but still firm and place on a grilled burger bun. A slice of Monterey Jack or Swiss cheese can turn the dish into a “portobello cheeseburger.” When topped with tomato sauce and cheese, the grilled caps can also make a “mushroom pizza.” You can always add cream to stretch the mushrooms and make a creamy, filling dish without meat. Chopped and sautéed mushrooms can provide a rich and satisfying filling for puff pastry and quiches.

Many people mistakenly believe that mushrooms have little nutritional value, but they are a great plant source of vitamin D, and also contain high amounts of other vitamins and minerals, including riboflavin, niacin, and potassium.

PHOTO: grilled portobello mushrooms, covered in herbs and garlic.

A sprinkling of herbs brings out the natural flavor of portobellos.

Thyme or sage added to chives are my favorite herbs to combine with mushrooms. I enjoy seasonal fall and spring mushrooms sautéed and then added to vegetables or pasta. Especially good is the hen in the woods with butternut squash ravioli and sautéed sage.

Look for mushrooms at our bi-monthly Farmers’ Markets this fall and at our annual Fall Bulb Festival market.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and