Thursday, September 23, 2010

Autumn Olives

Autumn Olive berries are a favorite in our house, and we introduce this invasive edible to everyone we know in hopes that they will also enjoy and gather lots of them. Our invasive plant book, "Invasive Plants: Guide to Identification and the Impacts and Control of Common North American Species" by Sylvan and Wallace Kaufman lists pros and cons of the autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) bush. Autumn olive is also listed on the USDA National Invasive Species website. Problems associated with the plant include it's tendency to grow densely and outcompete all other native plants in an area, and the plant's ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, therefore changing soil composition. One benefit is the fruit, which can stay on the bush into the wintertime, and another is the cover provided for wildlife. We do often see roadsides or old fields completely filled with the silvery autumn olive foliage. The plant was introduced in 1830 from China, Korea, and Japan as an ornamental plant. It reproduces easily because it makes an incredibly large amount of single-seeded berries, and can survive well in poor soil.

In spring, the plant produces it's silvery leaves very early, one of the first shrubs in our area of southeast Connecticut to show green. The leaves are arranged alternately along the speckled stem, shaped like long ovals, and are toothless and leathery. The undersides of the leaves are distinctly silvery, allowing you to identify autumn olives from a distance. In mid-spring the plant produces an abundance of flower clusters hanging from the leaf axils. The flowers have four petals that join at the base to form a tube, are light yellow or white, and fragrant. After the flowers die, tiny, dark green berries will start to form.

It takes all summer, and sometimes part of the autumn for the berries to ripen to red. I have read some accounts of how the ripening season has become earlier and earlier for the berries, and we have found an occasional, odd bush fully ripe in early August. These bushes all have seem to have distinct personalities, and each bush has it's own taste, ripening time, and amount of berries produced. Most bushes ripen in late September, and berries on a bush will taste sweeter later in the autumn. Inside each berry is a single, soft, oval seed that can be eaten without any ill effects, or spit out.

The taste of this silver-speckled red berry is sometimes hard to describe. Kids always love it because of the sourness, and if adults give it a chance, they like it too. The initial flavor is sometimes mouth-puckeringly astringent, then you get the fruity burst reminiscent of currants or peaches. Autumn olive berries contain up to 17 times the lycopene, an anti-oxidant, commonly found in tomatoes. They also contain vitamins A, C, and E. The berries are very easy to pick, and often grow in stunning quantities on a single shrub.

We use the berries to make jam and fruit leather, and the whole berries freeze surprisingly well for use in wintertime oatmeal breakfasts. We have also made a peasant wine from the berries. We have observed some odd characteristics of the berries while processing them. If sent through the food mill to remove seeds while raw, the sweet, red pulp will separate from a translucent, sour, pink juice. Robert made a jelly from the juice, and used the unsweetened pulp to make fruit leather.

More Photos Of Autumn Olive Click Here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chicken Mushroom Recipe - "Chicken" Pot Pie

Let me just start by saying that this was quite a treat for us. We were walking in a familiar area when Robert noticed a bit of bright orange on a tree. We are not very familiar or comfortable with mushrooms, but still like to look at them and take pictures for future identifications. This mushroom, however, he recognized as a chicken mushroom, or sulfur shelf (Laetiporus sulphureus), or chicken mushroom. Last year we had found a few that were too old to eat, and we researched them in hopes of recognizing a fresh one in the future. We still took precautions and spore printed the mushroom and asked that it be verified by David Fischer before we tried to eat it.

Sulfur shelf grows in shelf-like clusters on trees, stumps or logs, and it is important to know what kind of wood it is growing on. Although there are no poisonous look-alikes, some trees like Eucalyptus, hemlock, or honey locust will produce harmful sulfur shelf mushrooms. There is no stalk or stem. The top of the mushroom is bright orange and the underside is yellow. The underside is covered with tiny pores that will make a white spore print. The outer edges are thinner than the base attached to the wood, and wrinkled. When fresh like this specimen was, the mushroom will drip moisture when cut into.

Robert and Gillian gathered the few low clusters from the dead deciduous tree, but when he walked around the backside, we were stunned to find an enormous cluster. Overall, we got about 40 pounds of moist, young mushroom off this tree. Chicken mushroom tends to fruit again in the same place for a few years, so we will be back often to look for more.

Robert separated the clusters to clean the mushroom of a few bugs and debris, and proceeded to process this monster. He sliced up enough to fill the dehydrator completely. These slices will be used to make soups in winter. He chopped up enough to put 8 pint containers into the freezer for future recipes. Then we made a cheddar biscuit-topped pot pie, deep fried "chicken", and a coconut-mushroom soup this past week. The texture is very comparable to cooked chicken breast chunks, although the taste is mildly mushroomy.

"Chicken" Mushroom Pot Pie topped with Cheddar Biscuits
makes one 10"pie
5 Tbsp butter or oil
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
12 ramps bulbs, cleaned and chopped (or a small onion)
2 c. coarsely chopped sulfur shelf mushroom
4 Tbsp flour
up to 3 c. vegetable broth
salt and pepper
1 tsp dijon mustard
1 Tbsp sherry vinegar
1/4 c. chopped ramps greens (or scallions)
1. Heat the butter or oil in a large skillet. Sautée the ramps bulbs, carrot and celery until translucent. Add the chopped mushroom and cook until the juices have rendered.
2. Add the flour and cook 1 minute, until lightly browned.
3. Slowly add the broth, whisking to prevent lumps. Add enough broth to make a thick gravy, whisk in the Dijon mustard and sherry vinegar and then simmer for 5 minutes.
4. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper, and gently stir in the ramps greens. Pour into a greased pie plate.
Cheddar Biscuits
2 1/2 c. flour
2 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 c. shredded cheddar cheese
1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
6 Tbsp cold butter
1 c. buttermilk
1. Heat the oven to 425°F.
2. Mix the dry ingredients with the cheddar cheese. Cut in the butter until small pieces remain.
3. Add the buttermilk and mix as little as possible. Fold the dough over itself twice in the bowl before turning it out onto a floured surface.
4. Roll the biscuit dough to 1/2" thick and cut out 2" rounds. Place the rounds around the edges of the pie plate, leaving a bit of the center exposed. There will be extra biscuit dough for some plain biscuits, so cut those out to cook on a separate sheetpan.
5. Bake for 12-17 minutes, until the biscuit topping is browned and the filling is bubbly.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Foraging Report 10/13/2010

We had a great weekend foraging, and are looking forward to some letterboxing once the foraging slows down. The weather has cooled down quite drastically, and it is very dry these past two months in New England. Many trees are losing their leaves prematurely due to dryness without turning color.
We did post a letterboxing event for next year, called Foraging for Letterboxes on September 17, 2011. It will hopefully take place at Day Pond in Colchester, CT. We are a bit disappointed with the selection of wild edibles in Day Pond, so we plan on bringing some examples with us to show people. There are some great hiking trails there, along with many really good letterboxes in the area and a fantastic pavilion with tables for stamping. We hope to make this a fun event for the kids, too since there is a pond for dipping toes and fishing, and we will try to provide some other diversions. We did some exploring of a remote site for a foraging walk for those interested, and this site also has some good letterboxes nearby.

While out this weekend, we wanted to find some more grapes for jam. There were some, but many of them are shrivelling into raisins on the vine due to lack of rain. We picked all that we could see on Friday before it got too dark. At the same site, we also got a pocketful of apples from a cluster of old trees growing at this old farmstead. Robert climbed a chestnut tree to try to reach some nuts, but this tree was very high. The spiky hulls are still closed, so we will return in a few weeks to try to shake down some nuts.

We went to another favorite site to gather some ramps bulbs to try in a recipe with the acorn flour that Robert made last week. The bulbs are large, but loose. They are still putting their energy into making the seed stalks, so it will be better to dig them in a few weeks. We found one of the last bushes of elderberries with berries still on it, and Robert snapped a few pictures. We also picked some autumn olives.

The find of the day were some enormous chicken mushrooms, or sulfur shelf. These chicken mushroom(Laetiporus sulphureus) were easily 40 pounds, and very young. It was difficult to make a spore print since the mushroom was so juicy still. We had it verified, and are trying to process this monster. Robert dried some in the dehydrator, cubed up a lot of it to freeze, and we have several recipes to try this week, like "Chicken" Paprikash, "Chicken" Pot Pie, fried"Chicken", and whatever else we can think of. This mushroom tends to return to the same place again, so we will watch for it next spring and autumn. It was quite a surprise to find such a large, young specimen in these conditions.

Robert is looking to collect some more acorns, as his flour turned out really nice. This morning he cooked up some of the rougher ground meal with some maple syrup and walnuts into a type of porridge. The color was very dark, the texture was good and substantial, and the taste was great, almost like indian pudding.

Another edible we found a bit of this week was the spicebush(Lindera benzoin). I like the scent of the twigs, which is more lemony-cardamomy than the berries which is a stronger peppery-allspice. We picked a few red berries to bring home to cook with apples, and some twigs and leaves to try fresh in tea.

I have also been collecting a lot of edibles for a display I will be placing in the Otis Library here in Norwich, CT for the month of November. They have 2 glass cases in the entryway that people can fill with their interests and hobbies, and in the past there have been some nice displays of decorated eggs, senior art, and shipwrecked treasures. I hope to have enough plant material, products, photos and descriptions to fill both cases, so I need to get busy gathering things now when they are available!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Foraging Report 09/08/10

Autumn is my favorite time of year, with cooler, drier days and delightful evenings. Nuts and roots will become more important, and longer lasting fruits like apples can be gathered now. We got our puffball mushrooms from last week confirmed, and ate them simply sautéed with salt and pepper. Some people say that puffball is bland, but these ones were delicious. Hopefully this weekend we can find some more mushrooms when we take another walking tour with "Wildman" Steve Brill in Redding. This will be our first walk with him this season, we usually do 3-4 a year, but we have been busier than usual. In October, we plan on taking another tour with Russ Cohen in Southbridge, Massachusetts. We can always learn more, and enjoy their different teaching styles and personalities.

We continue to find wild grapes by smell, and the jam making has gone well. Autumn olives are also ripening for jams, fruit leather, and another batch of wine. We will also freeze some whole autumn olives to eat in oatmeal over the winter.

Robert gathered a bucket of white oak acorns this past week, and spent one morning shelling them. He would like to invest in a special nut cracker that costs $150 to shell these and other nuts much faster. Although they were only slightly bitter, he has proceeded with a week-long cold water leaching to remove any remaining tannins. He ground the hulled acorn nuts, soaked them in several changes of cold water, and will now dry the ground nuts to use in recipes.

On the Saturday after the weak hurricane, we headed to Horseneck Beach in Westport, Massachusetts to look for some more beach plums. The wind was still pretty fierce, and access was restricted to one area of the shore, with no water entry due to the high surf. We did find a few small, stunted trees with the tiny plums, but there was simply too much sand blowing in the wind to explore the area. The high surf threw hundreds of Atlantic surf clams up onto the beach near the high tide mark, and we gathered about a dozen to take home and cook up into chowder. They were tasty, but needed a lot of rinsing to clear the sand. There were also 2 different varieties of rosehips present on the beach, Rosa rugosa and a smaller, less thorny rosehip species. Some of the Rugosa roses exhibited white and pink flowers on the same bush. We also found some very sweet beach peas, just the right size to nibble upon.