Monday, April 14, 2014

Spring Foraging for Early Greens

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), one of the earliest spring greens

Foraging is very popular right now. I find myself on Facebook quite often, reading through post after post of people just discovering the shoots and greens of spring and asking what they can do with the bounty. I see seasoned foragers promoting new books, and posting really simple uses for the edibles that are found right now. I thought I would do a round up of previous posts I have made about the early wild foods of spring, instead of rehashing what I have written before.

Hairy Bittercress:

Wild Onions/Yard Onions:


Japanese knotweed:


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Chaga Recipe - Chaga Tapioca Pudding

Using the sterile conk of the chaga (Inonotus obliquus) fungus as a miracle heal-all remedy is really popular throughout the alternative medicine community right now. Many claims are made as to the medicinal capabilities of chaga, from reducing inflammation, boosting the immune system, treatment of diabetes, all the way to a cure for cancer. I just received  a back issue of Fungi magazine, featuring chaga, to read about its careful harvest, its life cycle, its self-regenerative capabilities, and the lore and historical use of this fungi. I personally am not making any claims as to the efficacy of chaga, but encourage you to do your own research.

We drink a chaga decoction because it tastes good, and the fungus is easily found in our area of New England on white, yellow, and black birches. Especially now, in the middle of a deep freeze, it is noticeable on the leafless trees of mixed forests. We made this dessert from a plain chaga decoction, and again from some already prepared, vegan Chaga Frappe we had in the fridge for a creamier pudding. Both were quite good, and the sweetener amounts can be altered to your taste. I also like to add a dollop of sweetened whipped cream or whipped coconut cream to the top.

Chaga Tapioca Pudding                                 makes about 4 small servings

1 c. chaga brewed decoction (below)
4 Tbsp. raw sugar or maple syrup
   (or use 1 c. sweeetened Chaga Frappe)
5 tsp. quick cooking tapioca

1. Place the chaga decoction, sweetener and tapioca in a small saucepan and let it soak for 5 minutes.
2. Slowly bring the mixture up to a rolling boil over medium heat, stirring often.
3. Remove from heat and chill, it will thicken as it cools. Cool overnight for a very firm pudding.

Chaga Decoction                                              makes about 6 cups

6 c. water
3 Tbsp. ground chaga conk

1. Combine the water and ground chaga in a large pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 45 minutes. Remove from heat.
2. Cool the decoction for about 30 minutes, and strain through a coffee filter. Sweeten to taste, or drink plain. Store in the fridge.

Sterile chaga conk on yellow birch

Monday, January 13, 2014

Foraging and Mushroom Observing in Winter

White pine

New England weather in early winter can be quite a roller coaster of ups and downs, snow one week, then mid 50's the week after, rain and polar cold winds with a mix of sunshine. We have five more months before any scheduled mushroom forays with the mushroom club, and the fresh wild food foraging can be scarce. Today was one of the sunshine filled 50 degree days, so I ventured out to a local park here in Norwich for some fresh air and to have a peek around. I only had my cell phone with me, so the photos may not be the best.

I found a few ascomycetes, a family of fungus that you might not recognize as a "mushroom" because of their shape. Ascos are usually small and often grow on decaying wood. They can come in many colors, and perhaps the most famous (and the tastiest!) is the morel. Ascomycetes are distinguished from basidiomycetes by how their spores are dispersed. We often use a jeweler's loupe to view the small features of ascos.

Ascocoryne sarcoides-purple cups

Exidia recisa (brown jelly) and Hypoxylon frangiforme (black bumps)

Bisporella citrina-yellow discs

I also came across several parasitic ascos, Elaphocordyceps sp. They are parasitic on an underground elaphomyces truffle, which is not considered edible. The ground is still a bit frozen. so I did not dig up the truffle for observation.

Elaphocordyceps sp. growing from an underground truffle
 Next were some polypore bracket fungi. They are often wood decayers and can completely cover the trunk of dead or dying trees. They help break down the organic matter back into soil, and are great recyclers of dead wood. Turkey tails are very common and can come in several color combinations, but these blue ones are some of my favorite. The maze polypore is names for Daedalus and the maze he created to hold the minotaur in Greek mythology.

Trametes versicolor- turkey tails

Daedaleopsis confragosa- maze polypore
Partridge berry
There are still a few edible berries to be found in the area, although the birds and deer will be looking for them too. Partridge berries (Mitchella repens) are pretty tasteless, but pretty to find. Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) prefers a pine forest, and the berries will persist throughout the winter. The flavor of the wintergreen berries are intensely wintergreen, and make a great trailside nibble. White pine (Pinus strobus) needles can be brewed into a refreshing tea filled with more nutritionally available vitamin C than an orange and are very common and abundant in Connecticut.


I am happy I was able to take advantage of this mild January day. I guess I'll keep an eye on the weather and hope for a few more mild breaks throughout the winter for another adventure and hunt in our local woods.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Day, 2014

We found ourselves home this holiday season, Robert off from work, and Gillian off from school, and lots of ants in our pants. We are usually traveling during this time of year, but due to some ticketing restrictions, we spent 12 days in Hawaii at the end of November, finding ourselves without travel plans for December's end. Connecticut's weather in November/December can be very variable year-to-year. Sometimes we are accumulating snow days and spending time making snow shelters, other times we can still be out hiking in the forests and finding growing green plants and fungi. The end of 2013 has been chilly, but snow-less, stunting growth but keeping the trails clear for exhilarating and red-cheeked hiking wearing many layers.

Partridge Berry

We hiked in a small section of the Mohegan State Forest in Scotland, CT on New Year's Eve, finding very little in the way of edibles or fungi, but scouting a fantastic oak and mixed forest near our home. There was some Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) berries left, and we chewed the somewhat dry berries for an easy sour cherry-like taste, spitting out the seeds and skin. We also ran across plenty of invasive Rosa rugosa rosehips, too small to bother with, but still edible and a potential source of vitamin C, and a few partridge berries (Mitchella repens). There was a small, brisk running stream that emptied into a larger swamp that supported a small population of cattails (Typha sp). We hiked for about a mile, encountering some shagbark hickories (Carya ovata) and lots of white and red oaks (Quercus sp), potential future sites for nut collection.

On New Year's Day we headed over to Ft. Shantok Park in Montville, CT. We had noticed plenty of oaks and some chestnut trees earlier in the fall. All of the nuts, both acorns and chestnuts, were long gone, leaving plenty of squirrel caches of empty husks behind. We did find a few edible wild enoki mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes) bunches, along with some inedible Trametes species. A few bits of fresh chickweed (Stellaria media) peeked out from beneath an insulating layer of leaves, making a quick snack. It has a tender crunch and a taste of corn silk.

Our New Year's Day ended with some time on the playground, then an evening watching movies, in anticipation of a potential snow storm for January 2nd. We all enjoyed our final forage of 2013 and our first forage of 2014, and look forward to morel/ramps season this spring, followed by abundant harvests in our home state of Connecticut.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Mushroom Recipe - Mushroom Sausage (Vegan)

"Chicken" Sausage with caramelized ramps and garlic mustard seed mustard on bread

Living in a 2/3 vegetarian house means we often eat our fungal finds as meat substitutes in recipes. Many of our favorite wild mushrooms have incredibly meaty textures and flavors, most notably the hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa) and the chicken or sulfur shelf (Laetiporus sulphureus) mushrooms. They are both polypores, having pores on their underside instead of gills, and are often large specimens that can provide several meals from a single fruiting body. We have successfully used this recipe for both mushrooms, but I suggest using this recipe as more of a guideline and template for your own tastes and the mushrooms you may find. If the chicken mushroom is too young, it may be a little too wet for this recipe, so we use fully shelved but still tender fronds. You could also change up the spices to your tastes.

We didn't use any special equipment, just a food processor and a steamer. We used tapioca flour and wheat gluten along with sticky arborio rice to bind the sausage together. Your yield will be based on the size of the sausages you make, we usually make them about the size of Italian sausages and double or triple the recipe. The taste will improve greatly once the sausages are sliced and fried until crispy, after the initial steaming and cooling period. We have taken the sausages camping to cook up for breakfast and to a potluck, served with our wild garlic mustard seed mustard and autumn olive ketchup. The sausages also freeze nicely, so we can make lots of them when we find a big chicken flush or too many hens to eat fresh.

"Hen" Sausage with caramelized ramps and autumn olive ketchup on bread

Mushroom Sausages                               Makes about 4 sausages

10 oz. (by weight) raw hen or chicken mushroom
1 tsp sunflower oil
1/4 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp poultry seasoning
1/2 tsp marjoram
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 1/2 tsp granulated garlic
3 Tbsp tapioca flour
5-6 Tbsp wheat gluten powder
1/3 c. cooked arborio rice

1. Saute the mushroom with the sunflower oil over low heat for about 15 minutes. Sprinkle the coriander, poultry seasoning, marjoram and salt over the warm mushrooms and allow the mixture to cool.
2. In a food processor, add the mushroom and spice mixture, sprinkle in the tapioca flour, wheat gluten, and pulse the mixture. Add the cooked arborio rice and pulse to combine. The mixture will be crumbly, but sticky.
3. Take a piece of aluminum foil and place about one quarter of the mixture in the center. Squeeze the mixture together with your hands into the shape of a sausage. Roll up the foil around the sausage and twist the ends tightly to make a foil "casing".
4. Place the wrapped sausages in a steamer over simmering water and steam for 30 minutes. Remove from the steamer and allow the sausages to cool.
5. Remove the foil casing, the sausage should hold its shape, and chill it for a few hours to firm it up. To eat, slice and saute in a hot pan with oil until crispy.

Hen of the Woods

Chicken Mushroom

Monday, October 28, 2013

Wild Cranberries Identified

Wild large cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) are native North American plants found in eastern Canada, the Northeastern New England states, the upper Midwestern states, and south to North Carolina. They grow in wet, acidic soils, often in bogs and and swampy spots, in pine barrens, and along coastal areas. Historically they were eaten by Native Americans, who called them sassamanash. Currently, cranberries are a major commercial crop for several regions, including Massachusetts and New Jersey as well as several Canadian provinces.

Our small patch grows near a boggy area in a mixed forest, in a small field area that floods seasonally in the spring with rainwater. It took us two seasons to observe the growing cycle of the wild cranberry, and we got to see the habitat in many different stages, from totally flooded to completely dry.

The first time we found the cranberry plants, I was a little surprised by their small stature. I was expecting something more like a blueberry, but these plants are very small, trailing shrubs, growing close to the ground. They create roots at their leaf nodes, and many stems are connected by underground rhizomes, creating dense mats of vine-like growth. The slightly woody stems are slender and hairless, branching rarely, and growing about 12" tall. The leaves are leathery and evergreen, 1/2" ovals with blunt tips, and are pale green on the undersides.

Flowers appear in the late spring, after some of the flood waters of spring rains have drained slowly from the acidic soil in the small field. We visited several times this spring to try to photograph the flowers, but it was very flooded in the area this year, and we had a hard time finding the small flowers, which are pollinated by bees. They have four reflexed, light pink petals with a golden-beige stamen that points downward. Many of the flowers we found were actually blooming underwater, since the water had not receded yet, and I wonder if that contributed to the smaller harvest we made this season. Gillian didn't mind exploring the flooded field, poking along the edges of the woods looking for immature berries or flowers. This field also has lots of native sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) growing in it, and is surrounded by white pines, indicating the sandy, acidic soil composition.

The fruit starts growing through the summer and ripens in the autumn. Large wild cranberries grow from a wiry, short stem along the leaf axils. The fruit seems almost comically large in comparison to the stem of the plants, but the fruit are also incredibly light since they are hollow. One to three berries grow from each woody stem, and they are fairly easy to pick. Cranberries ripen from pink to red, and are acidic and tart tasting. Inside are several very small, light brown seeds sprinkled throughout the partially hollow interior, along with the pinkish-white flesh that is spongy and light. We pick a few buckets, rinse them off, and freeze most of the cranberries to use all year long. The size of the berries are comparable to commercial cranberries, and they can be used in all the same ways: cranberry sauce, in muffins and pancakes, dehydrated, in pies, and juiced with a bit of apples for sweetness. Cranberries are high in pectin and vitamin C, plus beta carotene and anthocyanins, and can contribute to healthy kidney and urinary tract functions. The berries can persist through frost, and we found some of last year's berries in the very early spring that survived the winter. They are crisp when fresh, and soften once they have been frozen.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hen of the Woods Recipe - Hen Jerky

We have been finding  large amounts of hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa) this season, staring with the first find at the end of August. After an initial early flush, they started fruiting heavily in late September, and we have found more than 30 hens so far this season. We preserve our hens mostly by dehydrating the fronds to use later for soup stock, and by freezing the cores and more fronds to chop up for burgers. Robert also made lots of sausage with hens this year, using the same technique for making vegetarian sausage made from sulfur shelf mushrooms.

We needed to find something else to do with the pounds of mushrooms in the fridge, so we made some wonderful jerky. We found that this works best with slices from the core, or with very large fronds, since the pieces shrink up quite a bit in the dehydrator. We are using our Excalibur dehydrator, but an oven set on the lowest temperature will work, although the drying times will vary. We store our dried jerky in covered glass jars, but if we had a vacuum sealer, that would work well too. It doesn't last long around here, and it disappears even faster if we bring it out to a potluck event. This recipe makes a sweet/salty/spicy jerky, and the flavors can be changed to suit your tastes.

Hen of the Woods Jerky        Makes about 2 cups marinade, enough for a large hen

For the marinade:
1 c. apple cider
1 c. soy sauce
2-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
1/2 tsp ground fennel
5 Tbsp maple syrup
1 Tbsp Sriracha chili-garlic sauce

1. Place all marinade ingredients in the blender, and puree for a minute. Pour the marinade in a glass or non-reactive shallow pan, preferably one with a cover.
2. Clean the hen of the woods mushroom, making 1/8" slices of the core and the larger fronds. All parts can be used, but they will dehydrate at different rates and shrink up quite small.
3. Boil the mushroom for 10 minutes, and drain completely. Place the boiled hen pieces in the marinade while still hot, and refrigerate for 8-24 hours.
4. Remove the pieces of hen from the marinade and let them drain the excess liquid off before arranging on the dehydrator trays. If drying in the oven, use wire racks placed on a sheet pan. Arrange the marinated mushroom on the trays and dehydrate at 140° for 6-12 hours, until dried and leathery. The time will vary based on the thickness and sizes of the pieces, so check it often.
5. Store in an airtight jar or vacuum pack.

We often have more mushroom pieces than the dehydrator can handle at once, so we use the marinade again to flavor several batches, one after another, until we use up all the hen. Check out these photos to see how much a very thick frond will shrink up, the top picture is raw, then the center picture is after boiling, and the third picture is after marination and dehydration.