Monday, May 28, 2012

Fungi and Slime Molds

When we go out with the Connecticut Valley Mycological Society (CVMS), we are looking for all mushrooms and fungi, not just the edible mushrooms. Often several slime molds are collected and identified as well as some unusual small mushrooms, some weird cup-like fungi, and some specimens that are unknown. The season is still a bit early for terrestrial (ground growing) mushrooms, most are growing on decayed wood or leaf matter, including mulch and wood chips. There are also very few edibles available yet, as we did not manage to find any morels this season. Robert is still kept busy photographing the fascinating and often tiny specimens that are found, and they make lovely compositions.

Gymnopus subnudus, previously known as Collybia subnuda,
about 2-4 cm tall on rotten wood

Unknown ascomycota, cup fungi about 2-3 mm wide

Abundant rain for the past two weeks has brought out several slime molds, which are not fungi, but often found along with fungi. Most of the slime molds are best viewed under magnification, where the amazing features like hairs, spores, and tiny structures are suddenly visible.

Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa, slime mold, tendrils about 5 mm long, on rotten wood

Lycogala epidendrum, Wolf's milk slime mold, each sphere about 4-7 mm wide, on rotten wood

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dandelion Festival 2012

Earlier this month, we packed up and headed off for the weekend to Dover, Ohio and the 19th Annual Dandelion Festival that is held at Breitenbach Winery. We had never traveled to Ohio, and the scenery was very rolling and relaxed. The green pastures were punctuated by barns, silos, cows, and farmhouses. The whole area supports a large Amish population, and we witnessed horse drawn buggies and shopped at Amish markets for some cheese.

We attended the festival on Saturday, May 5, pulling into the secondary location at the Roadhouse Amphitheater up the road from the winery just as the marathon runners were starting off on their 3.5 mile run. The day started out overcast, but the haze burned off and the sun came out. Music, entertainment, food, the dandelion cook-off, and kids activities were on the calendar for the day, along with a tour of the winery and a visit to the retail store.

The fair food was pretty standard, but it also included some dandelion-based offerings. I tried the dandelion sausage, and had a cup of the dandelion wine-based sangria for lunch. Robert tried some mushroom and dandelion soup and some curly fried potatoes. Gillian ate a big bowl of dandelion ice cream, made with yellow flower petals. The winery was making mashed potatoes with dandelion gravy, and another vendor was selling dandelion lasagne. The winery was also offering samples of their many wines for 25¢ apiece. We purchased two bottles of the dandelion wine for ourselves, and another copy of The Great Dandelion Cookbook for a future giveaway!

The dandelion cook-off was the main draw for us. The winery had just completed a new building at the second location, and inside was where the cook-off was held, along with some cooking demonstrations. The cook-off contributors made a wide range of dishes featuring dandelion greens and flowers. Most of the cooking demos at the building were pretty basic recipes that just had some dandelion greens tossed in, but the cook-off dishes were great. Yahoo was on site, filming the festival for a show called Blue Ribbon Hunter, about interesting festivals and fairs. First place went to Sherry Schie for Dandelion Stuffed Pork Loin. You can look at her full recipe here, along with the second place winner, Dandelion and White Bean Crostini. Robert took several pictures of the dishes, and we also purchased a hand painted wineglass, covered with pretty, yellow dandelion flowers to enjoy our wine.

Panko Crusted Chicken with Dandelion
Artichoke Sauce

Dandelion Cookies

Buffalo Chicken and Dandelion Stuffed Peppers

Dandelion Calzone

Dandelion Oladi (Russian Pancakes)

Dandelion Stuffed Beef Braciole

Dandelion and Goat Cheese Flan with Cheese Fondue

Dandelion Blossom Custard Peach Pie

Italian Wedding Soup

Dandelion and White Bean Crostini

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Photo Collage - Black Locust

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is native to the Appalachian Mountain area, and is considered an invasive tree in other places. It grows quickly, and often in clusters, crowding out native vegetation and aggressively invading fields.  The bark of older Black Locust trees is grey and deeply furrowed. The tree can grow up to 100 feet tall, and the trunk is usually crooked. The wood is very strong and rot resistant, often used in posts. The leaves are compound with 7 to 21 oval, smooth edged leaflets. On smaller trees, a pair of thorns grow at the leaf axils. For about only one week in mid-spring, the white flower clusters droop from the trees, making the entire tree appear white. Each flower in the cluster has a yellow spot on its top petal, and the flowers look like pea blossoms. They are crispy when picked, and can be refrigerated or even frozen for later use. They are most fragrant right before opening, or within a day or so. If the blossoms are browned or falling to the ground, it is too late to pick them. The roots of the trees alter the nitrogen content of the soil. Most parts of the tree are toxic, causing digestive system problems. In late summer the tree produces flat, green seedpods that looks like beans containing flat seeds. It is only the flowers that we gather and consume.

The best way to eat the blossoms is raw from the tree, and the taste of the raw flowers is sweet like fresh peas.  Use them in a salad, or stir them into hot oatmeal. We remove the flowers from the brownish-green cluster stem and add them to pancakes and doughnut batter, or add them to an egg custard. Robert makes a sweet drink with the flowers steeped in water, honey, and lemon juice. Last year we made a peasant wine with the blossoms, and it is fantastic--floral, mostly dry, and wonderfully clarified. We have also made some black locust flower jelly and some flower-scented sugar. Robert also made a black locust blossom syrup, which we mix with seltzer for a bubbly non-alcoholic cocktail. The blossoms attract lots of bees and ants, and the trees will seem to "hum" with activity as you walk past one in mid-spring.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Kids and Wild Food Foraging

Yummy Wild Carrots!

Gnawing on knotweed
Gillian tasting maple sap
Given the opportunity, kids love to be out in the woods or in a field, searching for bugs and sticks, flowers and rocks. Showing them that you can eat some of those plants should not be scary, but fun. With a little caution, and plenty of encouragement, the kids will be able to positively identify many common and safe wild edibles. With simple explanations and repetition, children will absorb information without realizing they are learning something, they will just think that eating stuff outside is cool.

Wildman and Gillian
Gillian has always come out foraging with us. When she was small, we had her in the hiking backpack. Now she is seven years old and while she may sometimes be cranky about walking, she still comes with us every time. She can identify many wild edibles with confidence, and has several favorites like wintergreen leaves, dandelion flowers, lemony wood sorrel, cattail shoots, and every berry available. For five years now, we have taken tours with Wildman Steve Brill, and his daughter Violet often accompanies him. She is just a little bit older than Gillian, and that girl really knows her stuff! Wildman is working on a foraging book aimed at parents and kids, possibly an app too.

Black raspberries
Some of the best edibles to teach are the obvious ones without poisonous look-alikes. Berries like blackberries and wineberries are widespread and sweet, great first edibles. There are many different species, like dewberries, Himalayan blackberries, black raspberries, and more regional ones like salmonberries and loganberries. All are edible and tasty to different degrees. While most berry canes have thorns, picking them is generally easy and large quantities can be harvested. Freshly picked blackberries on a bowl of breakfast oatmeal taste way better than any store bought ones.

Gillian with some cattail-on-the-cob
Cattails are another good edible for kids, since the taste is mild and there is always the potential of getting muddy and wet. Gillian loves to eat the heart of the cattail shoots in the spring. It is tender and tastes a lot like raw cucumber, and relatively easy to gather even for a kid. Once you find a stand of cattails about 2' high, you pull apart the outer leaves, grasp the few leaves in the center, and give them a tug. The "heart" will pop out, and the bottom 4" or so is white and the part you want to eat raw. Another great part of the cattail comes later in spring, when the flower stalks come up. They will still be sheathed in one leaf, but are easy to cut from the plant. We then pull the leaf off, check for bugs, and boil up the flower spike and eat it like corn on the cob. The male portion of the flower is the upper section and has much more pulp than the female portion on the bottom of the flower spike, and can be used in a pancake batter and soup.

Edible flowers are another fun food for kids. Popping off the big, yellow heads of dandelions and munching on the flower petals is great fun, and the kids can't seem to get enough. Violets are pretty and edible, and the taste is very mild. Lilacs are more fragrant, but still pretty flavorless, it is the thrill of eating a flower that will keep children happy. Black locust flowers are actually tasty, with a flavor and crunch similar to raw peas. Adding colorful edible flowers to a salad will instantly make it more appealing to any kid.

Sulphur shelf
Gillian is also really good at spotting mushrooms, probably due to her closeness to the forest floor. All mushrooms should be cooked before consuming them, so she knows to never put any mushroom in her mouth. She has a favorite wild mushroom (sulphur shelf) to eat, and can identify several other species already. We used to have a monetary incentive of a quarter for every mushroom she spots, and while it helped fill our basket, it also quickly emptied our pockets. We still try to make mushroom hunting fun by bringing a magnifying glass with us to examine some of the fungi we find. Get your kids outside, and show them a few cool mushrooms, even if they are not edible.

Gillian's puffball

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Wild Ginger Identified

There are some wild edibles that we read about long before we find them. We have an ever-changing wishlist of plants we want to find, photograph, and taste in different stages of growth and in different seasons. Wild ginger is a plant we had unknowingly encountered in the past, admiring it for its unusual flower and pretty foliage. Upon becoming interested in the edible and medicinal properties of ginger, we have had a difficult time finding it in our immediate area. We finally got a tip on where to find large patches of wild ginger, and looked for it this weekend while in the western side of Connecticut. Wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is not closely related to commercial ginger, but the flavor and aroma are similar, and the rhizome can be used in the same ways as commercial ginger. Wild ginger is found in moist, shady forests from southeastern Canada into the mountain regions of Georgia, along the east coast of the United States, and as far west as the Dakotas. The rhizomes like undisturbed, rich soil and can be dug from spring to autumn.

Wild ginger is a native herbaceous perennial that spreads through its rhizomes underground. Colonies of ginger will carpet the forest floor in dense patches. The pretty, heart-shaped leaves are 4"-7" wide, reach up to 12" tall, and grow in pairs. They rise directly from the rhizome on fuzzy leafstalks, and the leaf is dark green on top and lighter green on the underside. The leaves are veined and completely soft and fuzzy. Because of the handsome appearance of the foliage, wild ginger makes a good addition to a shady, moist area of your yard as native landscaping.

In April and May, a flower grows on a short stem from the crotch of each paired leafstalk. It is an unusual and beautiful bloom, often hidden beneath the leaves and laying against the ground. The color of the petal-like lobes is a dark maroon, or purplish-brown, and the interior of the flower is cream colored. Even the exterior of the flower and the curled back lobes are softly fuzzy like the leaf stems and leaves. The flower grows close to the ground because it is pollinated by ants. Often, you will have to clear away forest debris and leaves to find the flower. A fleshy, six-celled fruit will develop later in the spring.

The rhizome of wild ginger is what is gathered and eaten, and used for medicinal purposes. It often grows just beneath the top of the soil and is easy to dig. Collect just a small percentage, less than 10%, of the roots from a patch to assure the health of the colony. The rhizomes are branched and covered with many smaller roots, connecting much of a patch together. They are about the thickness of a pencil and brittle, snapping apart easily. The aroma is fragrant and spicy, and the rhizome can be prepared in many ways, using greater quantities than commercial ginger since the flavor of wild ginger is more subtle. It can be dried and powdered, candied, and used grated in recipes. Medicinally, wild ginger is used to settle an upset stomach and to alleviate gas, nausea, and fevers. Wild ginger has antibiotic and antifungal properties, and was used by Native American tribes as a seasoning and medicine.