Saturday, January 17, 2015

Cattail Griddlecakes with Fresh Oyster Mushrooms for Breakfast

After watching a TED talk given by Sunny Savage, a wild food forager currently living in Hawaii on the island of Maui, we have been inspired to follow her mantra of "Eat a Wild Food Every Day". She advocates incorporating wild foods into your daily diet by just adding a little bit at a time to start, increasing the nutrition of any meal. We agree, and have been following this idea for years, adding nutrition, color, and interesting flavors to normal meals everyday. For us, it is second nature to reach into our stores of frozen, dehydrated, pickled, or jellied wild food stores to add something we foraged ourselves to a meal. Adding frozen wineberries to smoothies, cooking a soup with dried wild mushrooms, making pasta with dried and powdered nettles, or grinding garlic mustard seeds into spicy mustard is something we do nearly every day.

We were gifted a mushroom growing kit for Christmas, and promptly got it going, watching as the tiny oyster buttons grew larger the more we watered them, and finally harvesting the clump for breakfast this morning. 

The cattail griddle cakes were made with the male flowers of the cattail plant (Typha latifolia), gathered last spring before they produced their pollen. We go out in tall boots to snap the cattail flowers off the stalks, and bring them home to clean. The top portion of the flower is the male section, and can be easily pinched off the slim core into flaky bits that have a mild corn-like flavor. The  male flower parts freeze really well, portioned out into 1 cup containers, the perfect amount for a single recipe of griddlecakes. The lower, female section of the flower doesn't flake off like the male portion, but can still be steamed for a few minutes and chewed like corn on the cob, although you don't end up with a lot of actual material to chew. If left to mature, the male portion of the flower will produce the pollen that falls to the lower female portion of the flower, then the male flower falls apart and falls away, leaving the female portion to mature into the typical, brown cattail stalk that turns to fluff in the fall as the mature seeds are spread.We also gather the pollen from cattails later in the spring by snapping the pollen-filled male portions off into a bag, then shaking the bag vigorously. Then the pollen in sifted a few times to remove debris and small bugs, before being lightly dried and stored in the freezer to add to pancakes, biscuits, or smoothies.

A little more mature, male part on the top

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Yule Cake

Every year I make a yule log cake for family holiday gatherings, as one of the many belly-busting desserts. According to Wikipedia, from the Encyclopedia of English Folklore

"For as both December and January were called Guili or Yule, upon Account of the Sun's Returning, and the Increase of the Days; so, I am apt to believe, the Log has had the Name of the Yule-Log, from its being burnt as an Emblem of the returning Sun, and the Increase of its Light and Heat."

This year my family was scattered and we didn't have a large gathering, so I made the yule log cake to bring to a party given by friends, fellow mushroom enthusiasts, in honor of their new home.

The cake is a vanilla biscuit, filled with a passion fruit mouse, made from passion fruit juice we brough back last year from the Auntie Lilikoi factory on Kauai. The frosting is an Italian buttercream, and the cake is streaked with chocolate to resemble a white birch log, common here in Connecticut. The jumble of chunky chocolate is meant to resemble a medicinal chaga (Inonotus obliquus) that we gather to make decoctions. Maybe only a few poeple might get our obsession with mushrooms, but we are completely loving our fungal adventures!

Real chaga on silver birch

Plus I made a basket full of the traditional meringue mushrooms for snacking. Sweet!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Final Frozen Forage of 2014

Gillian bundled up and foraging on December 31, 2014

I was chatting with a friend this morning and kind of whining about how cold it was outside (upper 20's) and how boring the winter is here in Connecticut. We won't have any fresh greens, fruit, or mushrooms for months I lamented. She was kind enough to point out there is no snow on the ground and we could still go outside for a short walk and maybe find some rosehips or other hearty wild foods. Great idea, thanks Stephanie.

We bundled up and put on multiple layers before heading out to the cranberry bog for a peek. It has only been cold for a few days, but the rain that fell last week in the field had frozen into sheets of ice, making it lots of fun to slip around. There are still plenty of cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) left in the field, and we snacked on some while picking a small container of berries to bring home. Gillian had the most fun, finding the ice crystals that formed on the grasses stunning, and the air pockets under the ice cool to break open while popping frozen cranberries into her mouth. The cold mellowed out the tartness quite a bit, and they were softened by being frozen. Robert made a ginger-cranberry syrup with the soft berries, and I cooked the rest up into a traditional cranberry sauce to eat with pancakes for breakfast.

Moving on down the path through the surrounding bog, we marveled at the frozen pools of water and the sphagnum moss trapped under the ice in pristine condition. The sun was shining and reflecting off the sheets of ice, and it looked slightly unreal.

Further into the forest, we encountered plenty of pines and mixed spruce trees mixed in with oaks and birches. The needles of the white pine (Pinus strobus) can be made into a bracing, pine-scented tisane that contains vitamin C and tastes really good mixed with plenty of honey.

Wintergreen leaves and berry
Pine forests are preferred habitats for two more hearty plants to forage in winter, wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) and partridgeberries (Mitchella repens). Both of the evergreen plants had their edible berries present. While the partridgeberries growing from the non-edible, prostrate foliage are mostly tasteless, we picked a few to add color to a rice and grain salad for lunch. The leathery leaves and red, crowned berries of wintergreen both have the minty, wintergreen flavor, and we plucked some of both to make into a refreshing, warm tisane.

As for the fungi, we spotted the usual suspects on dead wood, crusts and polypore shelves. These mushroooms are just doing their job of breaking down the wood and decomposing the dead wood into sawdust and back into soil. Last week we came across some stunning blue turkey tails (Trametes versicolor) on another walk. Turkey tails come in many color combinations from oranges, browns, tans, greys, and sometimes subtle shades of blues. I was very surprised to find one poor, frozen, blackened-with-age gilled mushroom. I am not sure what it was, but it was my last fungi find for the year of 2014.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Chestnut Recipe-Chestnut Mousse

In our area of Connecticut we can find many Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima) trees on old farmsteads and in a few parks. They don't make good landscaping trees because of the spiny hulls that drop to the ground, and I have found sources of nuts by asking on Freecycle and offering to help clean up a person's yard in exchange for the nuts. The native North American chestnuts had been mostly wiped out by a fungal blight, although there are groups working to hybridize them and make them resistant to the blight. An estimated 3 billion chestnuts trees died from the blight introduced in the early 1900's. We find the Chinese chestnuts have good flavor, even better than the imported Italian chestnuts we can buy at the grocery store, but supposedly not as good as our native chestnuts.

This year was mostly a bust for most nuts, including black walnuts, white oak acorns, and hickory nuts, but we did mange to find a good amount of chestnuts to eat. Gillian likes them boiled and peeled, and we sometimes have a hard time getting her to stop eating them all before we can cook with them! I add them to rice pilaf and made a squash-chestnut soup with wild maitake mushrooms, but this dessert mousse is our favorite. Most of our boiled and peeled chestnuts are portioned out in the freezer, ready to thaw and make mousse later in the year.

Chestnut Mousse           makes about 12 1/2 cup servings

10 oz. peeled chestnuts
1 c. milk
3 Tbsp. spiced rum
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1/2 c. sugar
1/3 c. water
1 Tbsp. spiced rum
2/3 c. heavy cream

1. Place the chestnuts in a small saucepan with the milk and 3 Tbsp. spiced rum. Simmer for 20 minutes, until the chestnuts soften and the milk reduces. Puree the chestnuts and milk in a food processor until smooth, and cool. It will be quite thick.

2. In a mixer bowl, combine the whole egg and the egg yolk, whip on high until thick and frothy, about 6 minutes.

3. In another small saucepan, combine the sugar and water and bring up to a boil. Cook until it reaches 235 degrees, or soft ball stage. Pour the hot sugar into the egg and whip on high until cooled, about 8 minutes. It will be thick and light yellow.

4. Whip the heavy cream to stiff peaks.

5. In a large bowl, whisk the final 1 Tbsp. of spiced rum into the chestnut puree. Pour half of the egg/sugar mixture into the chestnut puree and whisk it together until smooth. Add the remaining egg/sugar mix and whisk until completely smooth. Gently fold in the whipped heavy cream, mixing until no white streaks remain. Pipe into serving glasses, or into a cake lined mold and chill. The mousse will thicken and become firm as it chills. Serve with cranberry sauce or shaved chocolate.

Chestnut trees in flower in spring

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Public Event!

Sunday, October 5 | 3 - 5 PM | Sugar House
What are those weird things that pop up in the woods after the rain? Are you mystified by wild mushrooms? Curious? Scared? Or do they make you hungry?

Come to Flanders Nature Center in Woodbury, CT join a foraging family who hunt, photograph, identify, and love to eat the fungi in New England for a discussion and walk identifying mushrooms (appropriate for beginners). Dispel myths, learn how to safely identify mushrooms, and discuss mycophagy, the cooking and eating of wild mushrooms.

The 3 Foragers are a family from southeast Connecticut and members of Connecticut Valley Mycological Society, Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association, and the North American Mycological Association, as well as avid wild food foragers.
Location: The Sugar House, located ¼ mile up Church Hill Road 

Pre-registration is required.

The Program fee is: $10 members and $15 non-members
Please call (203) 263-3711 x 12

Flanders Nature Center & Land Trust | 5 Church Hill Road | Woodbury, CT 06798 | 203-263-3711

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Making Bayberry Candles

Last summer Gillian went off to Colonial Survivor summer Camp at the Connecticut River Museum and had a great time building stone walls, tending the chickens, erecting a post and beam structure, and dying textiles with plants they collected on site. One thing they did not try was making bayberry candles from real bayberries. Bayberry candles were made by the colonists because they were cleaner burning and better scented than the candles made from tallow, or animal fat. Colonist folklore states that if you light a new bayberry candle on Christmas Eve or New Year's, you’ll have health, wealth and prosperity in the coming year. The adage reads: A bayberry candle burnt to the socket brings food to the larder and gold to the pocket.

In Connecticut, we have the northern bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica. It is not ideal for wax extraction, as it produces much less than the southern bayberry, but it's what I have to work with. The bushes are dioecious, meaning there needs to be male bushes to pollinate and set the fruit on the female bushes.They are a dense-branching deciduous shrub, native to North America where it is primarily found growing along the eastern coast (including seashore) from Newfoundland to North Carolina. We often find them used in landscaping applications in parking lots because they form attractive thickets and hedges. The blue-grey berries are clustered along the branches where the flowers were pollinated. We also gather the mildly fragrant leaves to press dry and use as a substitute to commercial bay leaves; we use more bayberry leaves in a recipe as their flavor is not as strong as commercial bay leaves.

On a recent trip over to Long Island, we were picking beach plums and I noticed the bayberries seemed especially abundant, and I gathered a gallon of them to take home. My hands were coated with their wax and fragrance for the rest of the day, as I just grabbed the clusters of berries and pulled them into a bucket.

It takes about 15 pounds of bayberries to render 1 pound of wax, so I knew I would not get too much wax from my one gallon. I shook the berries in a mesh sieve to get some of the smaller debris out, then placed them in a large pot with some water. I brought the pot up to a boil, and then simmered the berries for 15 minutes. The berries and most of the sticks and stems will sink, while the wax will float up to the surface of the water. I then ladled and strained the hot wax through an old jelly bag to remove more of the debris and dirt. I let the wax and some of the hot water cool in a plastic container, where the wax floated to the top and hardened. The wax block was easy to pop out and dry off, and there was about 1/3 cup of fragrant, green wax. Off to the craft store, where I purchased some votive molds, wicks, and unscented candle wax to mix with the bayberry wax. The bayberry wax is a bit weak and prone to discoloration and warping over time, so I chose to make  short votives and fortify the wax with plain wax. With my little bit of bayberry wax mixed with plain wax, I managed to pour three candles which we will burn on Christmas Eve into Christmas Day day for abundance and blessings, and for the memories of a summer day on Long Island gathering bayberries in the sun.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Edible Milky Mushrooms In Connecticut

The foray table, loaded with mushrooms for the ID session

Weekly forays with Connecticut Valley Mycological Society have us out in many locations throughout the state of Connecticut looking for fungi. We particularly like the edibles (of course!), but most of the mushrooms that come back to the identification table are not edible, some will make you sick, and a few can kill you, and those are definitely the ones you want to learn and avoid.

Lactarius volemus, close and creamy-white gills, mildly fishy smell, large volume of white milk

Lactarius hygrophoroides, wider
spaced gills and white milk
Initially, the weirder mushrooms we would find are in the genus Lactarius, and they can produce a milky latex-like substance when cut, scratched, or injured. Sometimes the milk is white, other times it is yellow, or can stain to red or blue. Kind of freaky, right? It turns out that some of those milky mushrooms are excellent edibles, and we collect them to take home. We collect three species for eating: Lactarius volemus, Lactarius hygrophoroides, and Lactarius corrugis. There are a few other edible Lactarius, but these three are species we can find in abundance in the summer in New England. When pan fried with a bit of oil or butter, they manage to retain a nice textural crunch. The L. volemus and L. corrugis have an unusual fishy odor when fresh, a key identifying characteristic, and some people think the odor carries over to the flavor; I find them to be an excellent edible, with an iron-y quality that doesn't have the fishy taste.

Gillian with an exceptionally nice specimen of Lactarius corrugis, showing its darker cap color

We love Connie!
Brined Lactarius and milkweed filling

Another benefit of being with CVMS is the collective knowledge of other
members when it comes to cooking, eating, or preserving the fungi. One club member, Connie, told Robert about salt-brining the Lactarius mushrooms for long term storage, a technique he now uses every year. We can sometimes find more than a dozen large, bug-free specimens on a foray day to bring home and begin the brining process. Robert begins by cleaning the Lactarius gently, then cutting them into quarters. He boils them about 10 minutes, lets them cool, then drains the cooking water. Sometimes we don't collect enough for a full jar, so he stores the cooked mushrooms in salted water in the fridge until we can collect enough for the brining process. Once we have enough, he layers them in a non-reactive glass jar, adding a few spices like garlic, peppercorns, or onions between layers, and salts each layer liberally before adding more cooked mushrooms. He allows the jar to sit a day or so, to see how much more liquid the mushrooms will exude under the salt, then adds enough clean water to cover the mushrooms entirely. They then can be stored in a cool place until we need them, and he has successfully stored them in this manner for about one year without mold forming. To use the preserved mushrooms, we remove them from the salt brine, rinse them, and soak them in fresh water overnight. They are then ready to be used in recipes, like Mushroom Paprikas, or I used them mixed with milkweed flower buds and ramps bulbs as a stuffing for steamed buns for a CVMS potluck picnic.

Lactarius corrugis, showing darker corrugated caps, darker tan-colored gills, and white milk

Becoming familiar with an edible mushroom that can produce a crazy and weird milk-like substance really opened our minds to the culinary possibilities of fungi in general. Previously, I was terrified of wild mushrooms, a real mycophobe, and it was my insistence that we learn mushrooms from people and not books that led us to CVMS and its wonderful members. I cannot stress enough how important it is to seek out and find wild food mentors to teach you the hands-on knowledge that can't be gained from a guide book, whether plants, fungi, or other foraging skills. While we are still not comfortable teaching in a commercial manner yet, we are always interested in learning and are willing and able to pay dues and for classes to further our education and experiences. Forage on!