Monday, April 24, 2017

Black Cherry Zserbo Cake

Using up more of our preserved wild edibles from the pantry:

Wonderfully dark and ripe, yet small black cherries

Traditional Hungarian Zserbo cake is a yeasted dough alternating with layers of apricot jam and ground walnuts, topped with a chocolate glaze. This  Zserbo cake is made with two layers of wild black cherry jam  and one layer of apricot jam.

While wild black cherries (Prunus serotina ) are small, in good years they can be easily collected in great quantities. Black cherry trees are possibly one of the most common trees east of the Appalachians since we lost the American chestnuts to blight in the early 1900's. Their flavor raw is quite tart; they should only be collected when ripe and nearly black. I hand pit them for jam by squeezing each cherry--the pits are too large for to send them through the food mill. They can also be cooked a bit and strained to get the stones out. The juice can then be used to make a spectacular ice cream, fruity syrup, made into jelly or jam, and used as the flavor for a fruit mousse filling in a cake. Wild black cherries also make a nice dry wine with an appealing dark color!

Flowers on a black cherry tree

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Maitake Pupusas

At this early date in April, we can start adding some fresh greens to our meals while still using our freezer full of foraged plants and mushrooms. Over the year, we collect many mushroom species and preserve them in various ways: in a salt brine, dehydrated, or frozen. We are trying to empty out the freezer so we can begin restocking it with fresh foraged foods!

One of the dozens of maitake from autumn 2016

Pupusas are thick stuffed tortillas made in El Salvador. The tortilla is made from masa and a touch of rice flour then stuffed with a melty, stretchy cheese, plus sometimes beans or a protein. Here we coarsely chopped up frozen maitake (Grifola frondosa) mushroom, and crisped it up with some diced onions in a sautee pan. Then it was mixed in with some shredded mozzarella and some smoked mozzarella. Robert mixes up the pupusa dough and fills the tortilla with a handful of filling before griddlling it in a cast iron plan. The result is a savory, gooey, and hot pocket with wonderfully stretchy cheese inside.

Mixed veggie curtido

Pupusas are typically served with curtido, a lightly fermented cabbage slaw with red chilies and vinegar. We didn't have any chilis on hand, but wanted to add some greens and other fresh flavors to the slaw. Our small yard yielded some chickweed (Stellaria media), sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella), and yard garlic (Allium vineale) for a kick.


Sheep sorrel

Yard onions, crow's garlic, it has many common names, Allium vineale

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Milky Mushroom Chowder

The winter Mushroom University classes that we attend in New York feature a potluck lunch. Robert cooked up a Milky Mushroom Chowder with the salt brined mixed Lactarius/Lactifluus mushrooms we preserved last year.

The three species are L. hygrophoroides, L. volemus, and L corrugis. They are preserved by first boiling the mushrooms for about 15 minutes, then layering them in a glass jar with nothing but sea salt and a few bay leaves. Within a few days, the salt will draw the excess moisture from the mushrooms and there will be enough liquid covering the mushrooms. To eat the mushrooms or use them in a recipe, they need to be soaked for a few days in several changes of fresh water to remove the excess salt. Then they can be cooked vigorously in soups or eaten with a good eastern European bread. The milky mushrooms retain an excellent texture this way, which is great since they don't dry and reconstitute well and we are limited on our freezer space.

L. corrugis has white milk, light orange gills, matching brown cap and stem, and often a corrugated cap.

 Lactarius/Lactifluus fungi are unique in that they bleed a colored milky substance when cut or scratched, if they are fresh; dried or older specimens will not have as much milk.  The color of the milk can range from clear to white, yellow, orange, or even blue. The milky substance can sometimes carry an odor like fish, and can stain your skin or anything else it touches.

L. hygrophoroides has white milk, creamy colored gills, a matching light orange-brown cap and stem, and widely spaced gills

Lactarius/Lactifluus are related to Russulas, the crumble-cap mushrooms, but don't disintegrate as easily. The cell walls of Russulas are more breakable and crumbly than most fungi due to shorter, more globular cells vs. elongated, fibrous cells of most fungi. Lactarius/Lactifluus have similar cells, so they cut cleanly and have a wonderful crunchy texture once cooked or salted. 

L. volemus has lots of white milk, creamy colored gills, a matching light golden orange cap and stem, and often emits a fishy odor from the milk that goes away when cooked

In a relatively rainy summer, the milky mushrooms will fruit in mostly hardwood forests in crazy amounts. 2016 was dry and we collected very few, but they all went into the salt brine. The edible species Lactarius/Lactifluus are among our list of favorite edible fungi because of their great texture and taste. Not all species of milky mushrooms are edible, please do further research or join your local mushroom club to learn the local mushrooms where you live.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Acorn and Spicebush Berry Sweet Buns

Spicebush berry-filled acorn sweet buns
As spring starts warming up the afternoons, the mornings can still be a bit chilly. We are using up some of the stored wild foods in our pantry and freezer before the new season of collecting begins. Both acorn flour and spicebush berries are kept preserved in the freezer, ready to use as needed. Sweet buns are a sweet treat for weekend breakfasts, and to take on the road when heading out early in the mornings to drive to classes.

As the tannins are removed, the water will get less cloudy with each rinse

Cold leaching red oak acorns (Quercus sp.) in the autumn takes about a week and a half. First we dry the acorns in the shell for a few hours in the dehydrator. Once shelled, we try to peel most of the papery skins off before grinding them coarsely. The cold water soaking process begins, rinsing and changing the water every day, and lasts until the water no longer gets cloudy and tea-colored from the tannins. The ground  acorns will taste sweet. Lots of people read that white oak acorns from rounded-lobed trees are less tannic than red or black spiky-lobed trees, but they should all be tasted and leached until no longer astringent. Tannins may upset your stomach or cause nausea and vomiting. Tannins may also interfere with the absorption of iron found in plant-based foods, so we would rather eliminate them. The resulting ground nuts are dried again in the dehydrator before being finely ground in our Vitamix flour carafe. The acorn flour is stored in jars in our freezer so it doesn't get rancid, ready to use when needed.

Spicebush berries (Lindera benzoin) are collected in autumn, early in the season before the birds get them all! The oval berries ripen to red and have one oval, black seed in the center. The berries and the simple leaves, as well as the scratched twigs all emit a spicy aroma.  The fresh green leaves have a mildly spicy, citrusy scent and flavor that makes a wonderful tea, but the leaves do not dry very well; use them fresh. The twigs are very reminiscent of allspice, and be steeped in hot water for a tea or used to skewer meats and vegetables for grilling. We also like to just chew on them once the grey bark is scratched off.

It's the berries of spicebush that pack the greatest flavor. When ripe, they are still firm. The scent and flavor is intensely and exotically spicy like cinnamon or cloves with a hint of citrus and black pepper. They can be slowly chewed, but a big bite will overwhelm your mouth. In some years, they are easy to collect in abundance, but scarce in other years. Spicebushes are either male of female, so there must be a mixed population for the bushes to set berries, or sometimes the flowers get stunted by a late frost in spring. Spicebush berries don't dry well--they lose a lot of the oils that give them their strong flavor; however they freeze wonderfully to use all year. The only caveat with freezing is that they lose their brilliant red color and darken, but all of the spiciness stays.

Spicebush berry ice cream

Spicebush berries make an awesome ice cream and can be ground from fresh or frozen before being added to baked goods that call for cinnamon, allspice, or cloves. We also add them to flavor applesauce and jellies.

These acorn buns are filled with spicebush infused sugar. When baking pastries with acorn flour, I try not to replace more than 1/3 of the wheat flour with acorn flour so it will still hold together. The sugar was made by whirring frozen spicebush berries in the food processor with brown and white sugar, until the berries were just specks, then the sugar gets sprinkled over butter and rolled up into the acorn dough like cinnamon buns. Served warm, they are fragrant and soft, with a topping of sweet glaze.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Sassafras Digging for Tea

See the three leaf shapes?

Now that the ground has thawed, we can get out to dig some roots, rhizomes, and bulbs. In spring they are nice and fat because the plant is still dormant and hasn't used the stored energy in the bulbs yet.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a native tree in North America that grows and is common in the eastern United States from Iowa, south to Texas, and to the east coast. The bark of mature tree trunks is deeply furrowed and dark reddish-brown, while the bark of young saplings and twigs is green. Sassafras trees have three, smooth-edged, differently shaped leaves on a single tree: a simple oval leaf, a bi-lobed leaf that looks like a mitten, and a tri-lobed leaf that kind of looks like a dinosaur footprint. The small, yellowish flowers have not started blooming yet here in Connecticut, making it still a good time to dig the roots. The roots of sassafras grow horizontally to the surface of the ground and often not very deeply, making them relatively easy to collect. Sassafras suckers many small saplings each year from the "mother" tree, and most will not survive under the forest canopy. Digging the roots of small sassafras saplings will not affect the overall population in the wild, it is sometimes even considered a weed tree.

Outer bark and cambium layer shaves from sassafras roots

The smaller roots and outer skin of bigger roots of sassafras contain the most fragrant parts to use for an infusion. We just chop the smaller roots into discs, and skin the larger roots with a machete once washed well to remove the dirt. The chopped roots are then air-dried in a warm, sunny window and stored in jars. The infusion is made by gently simmering the roots for about 20 minutes, and can be served warm or cold, lightly sweetened with honey. The infusion is a golden-red color and very fragrant--almost spicy. "Root" beer can also be lightly fermented from sweetened sassafras decoction to add fizzy bubbles and a very small alcoholic content. Seltzer can also be added to a particularly strong decoction for bubbles. Note: the FDA has put out a warning that sassafras is carcinogenic because of safrol. They determined this by dosing rats with incredibly high levels of pure safrol oil to possibly limit the production and sale of safrol, a component in the manufacture of the street drug Ecstasy. We feel that drinking reasonable amounts of sassafras tea is safe and very enjoyable. Please make your own decision as to the consumption of sassafras tea.--edited to clarify our opinion.

Sassafras root infusion

Fermented sassafras root beer

Sassafras infusion, or tea, was once considered medicinal in the early colonies, "good for whatever ails you". It was exported to England in large quantities until the market was over saturated. Sassafras was also considered a great cure for syphilis, and many people probably didn't want to be seen drinking it for fear of being potentially a sufferer of the disease!

Sassafras flowers
The leaves of sassafras also make a fragrant spice; it is actually the source for filé powder. Filé can be made by collecting the leaves in the summer, drying them, and grinding them finely; we use a coffee grinder. Filé is used in Louisiana Creole cooking as a spice and a thickener, commonly in gumbo.

Filé powder made from dried and ground sassafras leaves