Thursday, April 4, 2019

Spring Edibles - Greens and Mushrooms

After the cold winter the spring greens and shoots are a bit slow to emerge. We find ourselves turning our faces up towards the sun on the nice days, warming our cheeks. Looking down at the ground for signs of life is second nature for us as we take short walks along muddy trails, and we are even taking note of the swelling buds of the trees. Not long now before we begin another year of enjoying our scavenger hunt for edible plants and fungi, where the prizes are delicious!

 Those pesky yard onions, Allium vineale! Use them like chives, in potato salad, on baked potatoes, in a savory quick bread, in soups, grill the small bulbs until they sweeten, just use them up!

Hairy bittercress, Cardamine hirisuta, a small plant in the mustard family. The leaves and flowers are peppery and bright in salads.

 Ostrich fern fiddleheads, Matteuccia struthiopteris, are the only species of fern fiddleheads we eat. They are growing more scarce in our area of southern New England due to habitat loss, so we only collect enough for a single meal each season. Further north into eastern Canada, they thrive in the wide open river floodplains. Sustainability is key- only collect half of the fiddles per crown, and never more than you need.

Tender and mild chickweed, Stellaria media. These have been out for awhile, ad they'll be good eating until it gets too warm and they go leggy. Eat raw and add to smoothies, or add last minute to soups to keep the green color.

Common daylily shoots, Hemerocallis fulva. Sautee these with a toucg of sesame oil and soy sauce for a quick side dish of greens. The tubers are good to collect in spring as well, and we can look forward to the edible flower buds, flowers, and wilted flowers later in the season.

Stinging nettle shoots, Urtica species, packed full of iron. These are my personal spring tonic, and we collect them for soups and to add to smoothies raw, dry some for a seasoning powder, and dry some for tisanes.

Dryad's saddle mushrooms, Cerioporus squamosus, a wood rotting polypore of spring that can be delicious when collected young. Look for them on big, old maples and make sure your knife cuts through them easily, otherwise it will be too tough for the plate. They are well flavored with just a sautee and a touch of salt, but meaty enough to stand up to stronger spices like Korean gochujang.

Invasive garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, showing the start of the second year's growth almost ready to set up a flower stalk, plus first year's growth of sprouts from the many seeds this plant produces. Eat it all--greens, leaves, roots, flowers, seeds, sprouts.

Ramps greens, Allium tricoccum. Collect sustainably--one leaf per plant, don't dig the bulbs! A pungent burst of garlic and onions in a chlorophyll filled green leaf, intense flavor for all dishes and a puree that keeps in the freezer for use all year.

Yellow rocket, Barbarea vulgaris, another member of the mustard family. Spring is when the greens are tender, and the flower heads cook up like broccoli rabe. A touch bitter, but a good green for cooking.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Wild Mushrooms for Dinner: Giant Puffball Pizza

We are not among the lucky few who often find giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) in the area, usually finding the little pear-shaped ones on wood (Lycoperdon pyriforme), the gem studded ones on the ground (Lycoperdon perlatum), or the medium sized skull shaped ones on the ground (Calvatia craniiformis). When I spotted this giant puffball, I thought it was a forgotten volleyball, it was about 8" wide. Robert grabbed it and brought it home for dinner, thinking we might try a pizza or maybe a lasagna.

Poison Pigskin Puffball, NOT EDIBLE!
It is imperative that edible puffballs are completely white when sliced open. If you see any hint of color, it means it is too old, the spores have begun to mature and it is no longer edible. At an even more mature stage, kids will kick puffballs around to see them "puff" out their spores in a big cloud. The poison pigskin puffball is usually deep purple or black when sliced open and while it won't kill you it will make you quite sick. Some very immature Amanita eggs can look like buried puffballs, but once sliced open, you will see the outline of the mushroom and realize it is an Amanita. 

Amanita Egg, NOT EDIBLE!

This puffball was firm and white, like a brick of extra firm tofu. Just like tofu, puffballs can be bland, but can also soak up whatever flavor you give to them. I gently sprayed some 1" thick slices with olive oil spray and grilled them up on the George Forman grill, and they smelled wonderfully nutty. Those slices then became the "crust" for a really simple pizza with some red sauce and cheese. Other grilled slices went into a lasagna as the "noodles", and smaller bits were coated with a light batter and deep fried. Sometimes the outer skin can be a bit tough or dirty and it can be cut off before the interior is sliced up. A giant puffball can provide a lot of food for a single mushroom!

Giant Puffball, about 8" wide
Small Pear shaped Puffballs on a log, each is only about 1" wide

Monday, October 15, 2018

Wild Cranberry Turnovers

Wild cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) can be found in a few places in Connecticut, but are far more common in the dunes along Cape Cod. On our visit there a few weekends ago, we packed our wild blueberry rake and a bucket to collect a gallon or so to bring home for our freezer and for some fresh cranberry sauce and other treats. They are the same berry found in the grocery store around Thanksgiving, with some imperfections and lots of size and color variation, but found for free out in the wild. They are a small trailing sub-shrub, interconnected underground. The leaves seem comically small in relation to the berries, but cranberries are mostly hollow and light with a few, small scattered seeds inside. They readily float in water and can be cleaned and the bad ones and debris like twigs and leaves are picked away easily using a big bowl and a few changes of clean water.

This time I made some mini turnovers with apples from the local orchard and the wild cranberries, the filling gently simmered together with a touch of sugar and apple cider. The cranberries gel into a thick sauce when cooled, and I spooned the mixture onto puff pastry squares and sealed them with egg wash, and baked them until puffed and crispy. They were tart and very tasty for breakfast!

Here you can see the cranberries cut in half and how they are mostly hollow

To collect wild cranberries or wild blueberries in large quantities in a shorter amount of time, we use a huckleberry rake we purchased from a gentleman in Maine. He makes them from aluminum and it is quite light and rust resistant. The tines allow the berries to be popped right off into the holding reservoir and leave behind the branches and leaves without damaging them. We have had the rake for several years and can recommend it heartily.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Wild Mushrooms for Dinner: Hedgehog Hand Pies with Acorn Crust

Our autumn mushrooms include hedgehogs, in the genus Hydnum. On the underside of the caps these are small teeth, or spines instead of gills or pores. They are cousins of chanterelles in taste, and cook up wonderfully once browned with a bit of butter. We generally refer to the smaller ones with a small central depression in the cap as the bellybutton hedgehogs, Hydnum umbilicatum.The larger ones, up to 10" caps with an offset stem, we call Hydnum redandum. Off course, rumor has it that DNA isn't going to let us get away with it that easily and that there are many, many species lurking around in the mix. The golden hedgehogs that we find in the fall in mixed woods in southern New England all tend to be quite tasty, however. There are some more pale varieties, and some that tend to be a bit bitter, but the buttery-golden ones are good for the plate.

For the ones we collected this past weekend, we decided to go really wild and make a savory hand pie with an acorn pie crust, and added to the filling diced butternut squash, new red potatoes, freshly dug ramps bulbs, thyme, a thick vegetable gravy, and the foraged hedgehogs. The filling was mostly cooked and chilled beforehand, and the rolled acorn crust filled right before cooking. The pie crust was made with ground acorn flour from white oak acorns that we leached, ground, and toasted last year and had kept in the freezer. I dug the ramps bulbs yesterday from a large patch, taking only what I needed and replanting the mature seed heads into the holes I made by removing the fat bulbs. We are both intuitive cooks, so I don't have a recipe, I just cooked with what I thought would taste good!

Acorn flour

Ramps bulbs

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Wild Mushrooms for Dinner: Maitake Chili-Stuffed Potatoes

Hen (Grifola frondosa) season is in full swing after a small weather delay in southern New England. Our dehydrators are going day and night, filled with jerky, leaving me with lots of leftover "bits" to cook with. Here I made some meatless chili, with ground hen, poblano and sweet peppers, smoked chilies, onions and garlic, spices, and a bit of tomato sauce, and stuffed it into some baked potatoes with some melted cheese.

Hen-of-the-woods are known by several different names depending on your location, we like to call them maitake, the traditional name used by the Japanese which means "the dancing mushroom", because you may dance with joy if you find one. In the midwest they call them sheepshead or ram's head mushrooms. Some Italians call them signorina. They are a type of mild saprobe, rotting the roots of sick or dead hardwoods, 95% of the time it's a red oak in our area of southern New England. They can be cultivated, and if you find small maitake for sale in your local grocery store, they are likely cultivated.

Maitake are one of the safer and easier polypores for beginners to identify and have a definite season from the last week or so in August through November, based on the weather becoming cooler. This has been a very warm autumn, so they have been very late, not showing up in our area until the third week of September. Maitake have many small fronds attached to a main stem or core. Each petal or frond has small pores on the pale, white or cream colored underside. The color of the fronds can vary from a light grey to dark grey and many shades of brown, and other environmental factors matter, like how much sunlight or rain the mushroom has been exposed to. They can be tricky to spot at first, but look like a small chicken resting at the base of a tree, or a small pile of leaves. We use a knife to cut them away from the main stem and trim away any debris. If there is evidence of maggot tunnels, we remove more mushroom stem. If there is a lot of debris embedded in the flesh, we don't bother to take the mushroom home; maitake are so abundant we can afford to be choosy.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Wild Mushrooms for Dinner: Chicken Mushroom Paprikas

Here we have a chicken mushroom paprikas, a traditional Hungarian dish with a tomato base, lots of paprika, onions, garlic, and some sweet peppers. Robert made some fresh nokedli dumplings and served it all with some lacto-fermented pickles on the side for a sour zing.

Very young yellow chicken

Chicken mushrooms (Laetiporus sulphureus) are often on our dinner menu, one of the most versatile wild mushrooms to cook with. They can be found in the spring, summer, and autumn. It's not so much that they taste like chicken, but their firm texture can mimic chicken perfectly, if it is collected at the right stage. Don't be fooled and collect it if it is too dry and old--then you will be eating sawdust, and no amount of cooking can tenderize it. You want the fronds to be thick and oozing juices when you cut them, you want the colors to be bright. Excess chicken stores well if sauteed first then frozen in containers or vacuum packed. It doesn't dry then re-hydrate well, again there is the sawdust factor unless you plan on powdering it as a seasoning. There are two species of chicken mushroom in our area, the yellow chicken, Laetiporus sulphureus, and the white chicken, Laetiporus cincinnatus. The yellow chicken is a heartwood rotter, so you will often find it anywhere on the trunk of a standing or dead and fallen tree. It is bright orange on the top of the fronds, and the pore surface in the underside is bright yellow when fresh. The white chicken is a butt wood rotter, so it will be found at the base of a dying tree, or even out in the yard away from a tree but still attached to the roots or hidden wood. The top of the fronds are a peachy color while the pore surface on the underside of the fronds is white. Most people claim the flavor and texture of the white chicken is superior the the yellow chicken, and it does seem to be more tender. Both should be collected when young and fresh.

Some white chickens cut from a stump

Friday, September 28, 2018

Preserving Your Wild Mushroom Harvests through Freezing, Canning, and Salt-Brining

Lots of hens to preserve

When the wild mushrooms fruit in abundance, the picking can be pretty intense in southern New England. Some years the weather conditions cooperate and we get warm temperatures and abundant rain which translates into flushes of black trumpets and enough Boletes to fill shopping bags and car trunks with mounds of fungi (2014, 2018); other years we have heat waves, drought, and gypsy moth caterpillar attacks that leave us crying through the summer (2016, 2017). To keep our tummies full and taste buds satisfied in lean years, we collect what we can in the good years and preserve it in several ways to tide us over in the leaner years, and often share our excesses through potlucks and holiday dinners with friends using out-of-season foraged foods that have been stored safely. We don't have a massive home or pantry, but make due with some shelves and small chest freezers for our wild edibles. We also have made some purchases of a few specialized pieces of equipment to make preservation easier, and can heartily recommend the Excalibur dehydrator, and a Foodsaver vacuum sealer with plastic bags and optional jar sealing attachment.

Cooking and Freezing

When it comes to freezing mushrooms, we feel it is best to cook them first for a couple of reasons. First, it greatly reduces the volume of the mushrooms when you cook them, taking up much less freezer space. We try to cook them in the least amount of neutral oil needed, just until they have given up their juices and have become dry in the pan. That way, they can portioned into plastic bags, vacuum packed in plastic bags, or placed in hard containers with the least amount of liquid. If you want smaller portions for smaller recipes, portion the mushrooms out into smaller containers or into an ice cube trays, then pop out the mushroom "cubes" and then bag those up in plastic with most of the air removed. The second reason for cooking the mushrooms before freezing is that it prevents the formation of ice crystals in the raw mushrooms. The ice crystals will burst open the cell walls of the mushrooms, resulting in mushy, wet, flabby mushrooms once thawed out for use in recipes, a rather unappetizing texture.

Meadow mushrooms, good to cook and freeze for recipes

Many of the gilled wild mushrooms we collect are very good candidates for the cooking and freezing method of preservation. We keep winecaps, meadow mushrooms and other edible Agaricus, oysters, and honey mushrooms in the freezer, ready to thaw and add to dishes. Chanterelles are another wild mushroom that fare better with the cook and freeze method since they don't re-hydrate well from dried. Some of the tougher polypores like the chicken mushroom or Berkley's polypore should never be dehydrated, but cooked and frozen for later use. Even a tender polypore that we can dehydrate successfully, the hen, works well cooked and frozen as whole fronds, shredded into strips, or finely chopped in the food processor like ground meat. 

Wild Rice and Hen soup, keeps well in the freezer in large plastic containers

Other wild mushroom items we keep in the freezer are already prepped dishes. These include things like Thai curries made with coconut milk and curry paste that include cooked wild mushrooms. When we want to eat this dish, we just need to that out the curry sauce, heat it up, add some fresh vegetables, and serve over cooked jasmine rice. Pot pie bases with wild mushrooms keep well in the freezer, with the cooked wild mushrooms--usually hens--carrots, celery, peas, herbs, and the thick gravy. When we need it for dinner, I remove it from the freezer, thaw it, add a fresh top crust, and bake it all together. Mushrooms soups can be frozen in single or larger family sized portions. Patties or "burgers" made with ground mushrooms with egg or breadcrumbs as binders can be par-baked and frozen; I find it is best if they are frozen individually on a sheet pan first, then stacked with a small piece of parchment between each patty inside of a bag to prevent sticking. To reheat, just thaw and microwave, or heat in the oven or in a skillet.

Pickling, Canning, Marinating, and Salt-Brining

Two long term methods of keeping your mushrooms preserved would be pickling or canning. We personally haven't done very much of either of these. To stay safe and avoid botulism, it is strongly
recommended to not can wild mushrooms at all and the method suggested for button mushrooms is actually pressure canning. It is important to add enough acid to bring the brine to a pH level of 4.6 or lower to stay safe. Use paper pH test strips or a digital pH tester to check the acidity levels. Marinating mushrooms in a flavorful dressing for short term storage in your refrigerator can produce a great snack for a pickle tray or garnish a mixed drink. We like to use small button honeys or Agaricus for something like this, and make a sweet and sour marinade that tastes similar to a cocktail onion, and soak the mushrooms for 3 days to a week or so. Using a good Italian dressing is another option for marinated mushrooms as well.

Salt Brined Lactifluus mushrooms

Salt brining mushrooms for long term preservation is a technique that Robert was familiar with from Hungary, one that his family used. We use it for a few edible Lactifluus species we like to collect, L. volemus, L. hygrophooides, and L. corrugis. This method would also work with Russulas, honeys, Agaricus, Leccinum, hens, or any other firm-fleshed mushroom that can withstand an initial boil. First, the mushrooms are cleaned of debris, then cut into manageable pieces. They are then boiled for about 10-15 minutes then cooled. We then place them in a single layer in a jar and sprinkle with a heavy layer of sea salt. Another layer of mushrooms is added and another layer of salt, until the jar is filled or you run our mushrooms. After a day or so, the mushrooms will let out some liquid, but you will have to add some fresh water, enough to cover the mushrooms so that none are exposed to the air. The mushrooms can then be kept in a covered jar or crock in a cool place for a year or two, if you don't eat them first! They will be incredibly salty, so to use them in a dish, you need to de-salt them first. We do this by taking out what we need for a recipe and soaking it in a few changes of fresh water for 2 days in the refrigerator. The mushrooms will be quite good and have excellent texture, which is why it is important to start with firmer mushrooms to begin with.

Chowder made with Salt-Brined Lactifluus mushrooms, after soaking to remove the salt

Preserving your wild mushrooms can provide you with tastes of your harvests for many months after your foraging, and the more ways you know to keep your bounty fresh and safe, the more options you have for the best tasting food.