Creative Sustenance

Culinary and other adventures in foraging, gardening, urban farming and more, in Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Fairy ring mushrooms

The last couple weeks have been rainy and moderate with temperatures in the mid to upper 40s. We've had a day or two where the sun peeked through and the temps climbed into the 50s, but each morning when I've gone out to feed the ducks I've looked at the sky and wondered if today was the day we'd get our first good snow.

While working in the yard to clean things up before everything gets covered with snow (a job that the sensible part of me thinks is entirely ridiculous, but which my OCD side nevertheless frets over) I discovered a patch of scattered fairy ring mushrooms, Marasmius oreades, hiding behind the beehive at the edge of the pines in the front of the house.

Fairy Ring mushrooms, Marasmius oreades.

Unless I get lucky and find some late season maitaki this might be the last hurrah for edible mushrooms for the year. Coming upon the fairy rings was a lovely little surprise and made for a pleasant spur-of-the-moment breakfast for my wife and me.

Fairy Ring mushrooms are a common lawn mushroom and may appear from spring through autumn. They're small, 1" to 3" tall and an inch or two wide at the cap. The caps are light tan or cream-colored, bell shaped when young, but becoming more planar as they age and often displaying a pronounced central bump or "umbo" on top, making them look kind of like tiny, wide-brimmed hats. The gills are generally a little lighter in color than the cap, and are free, or unattached from the stalk (or, as most books indicate, only slightly attached...but I've not seen any yet that are attached). The spore print is white or cream colored.

Fairy ring caps and a couple of spore prints.

Close-up of fairy ring spore prints. Click to enlarge.

The stalk is a major identifying feature of the fairy mushroom. It is very slender, shows no significant variation in diameter from top to bottom, and no ring, volva or veil. The real telling feature of the stalk, though, is its resiliency. It's a tough, fibrous little bugger, not easily broken or snapped in two, able to be bent and twisted with some force. The character of the stalk is important to remember in properly identifying fairy ring mushrooms. 

The almost unbreakable stalk of the fairy ring mushroom.

It will usually either bend, as it is in this image, or crimp, as in the image above this one.

Here I twisted it back and forth until it separated, showing its stringy, fibrous interior.

Given what I just said about the stalk of the fairy mushroom it might be obvious that it is the cap that is the desired edible part of the fungi. When you collect them use a scissors and just snip the caps off. They are also a lightly fragrant mushroom, especially whilst being sauteed in butter. There's an almost herbal, very subtly floral mushroomy scent to them. They are fantastic. 

Oh, and they may be about the easiest and most favorable mushroom to dry for long-term storage. 

Unfortunately, there weren't enough in the yard this day to bother drying. There were just enough to fill an omelet for breakfast. And I'm quite happy with that.

Super-quick butternut squash & maple syrup soup

The only thing faster than making this delightfully sweet and savory soup is typing this blog post. I've had a couple of small butternut squash setting on the porch for the past couple weeks, and as we're having Ma & Pa come by for dinner tonight I thought it'd be a good opportunity to use them up. I'm cooking a pork roast and baking bread so I wanted a first course veg dish that is delicious, fast and simple. This soup meets all three criteria.

Butternut squash and maple syrup soup.

Ingredients:  

  • Couple of butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded and cubed into 1" to 2" pieces.
  • Salt to taste, maybe 2-4 tsp.
  • Cracked white peppercorns, 1-2 tsp (you can use black pepper, white just blends in better) .
  • Heavy cream, ½ cup or so (you could also do without the cream if you don't have any on hand; it just softens it up a bit).
  • Butter, ½ stick. If you forego the cream you might want to add more butter, up to ¾ stick total. If you use salted butter, keep that in mind when adding the salt.
  • Wisconsin maple syrup, the real stuff...at least a ½ cup, upwards to a full cup...do it by taste.

Butternut squash flesh has such a great orange color. 

  1. Add some water, maybe a cup, to a kettle and bring to a boil. The water is really there to help keep the squash from burning and sticking to the bottom.
  2. Toss in the squash chunks, lower the heat, put a lid on the kettle, simmer for 10 or 20 minutes, until the squash is soft and squishy. 
  3. Mash it with a potato masher or a hand mixer. Add the butter, cream if you're using it, salt and pepper and mix well.
  4. Add the maple syrup, ½ cup to start, stir it in and taste it. Add more if you think it needs it. You may want to add a little more salt as well (I like the combination of sweet and salty, so I added a little more salt right before serving).

That's it. Might even have some for breakfast in the morning if there's any left. 

 

Entoloma abortivum, the CatDog of mushrooms

Third in the current mushroom sequence.  Entoloma abortivum, a.k.a. aborted entoloma, a.k.a. pig snoots, is one of the more confusing edible mushrooms around. It's not confusing to properly identify; that's a fairly simple matter concerning this weird little malformed blob of white deliciousness. What's confusing is the fungi's biology. 

Aborted entoloma on open ground.

From what I've gathered in my studies there has been a good deal of uncertainty, hypothesizing and revision over the years concerning the hows and whats of aborted entoloma growth and formation. At one time the common wisdom was that Entoloma abortivum was simply a malformed, "aberration" of the entoloma mushroom, kind of the mushroomy equivalent of a two-headed snake or the brain-eating-mutant Rob Roberts from the old X-Files episode "Hungry" (embracing my sci-fi geek self today).

Then, in 1974 a paper by a fellow named Roy Watling presented evidence that showed that Entoloma abortivum contained hyphae (mycelium filaments) of another fungi, Armillaria melea (honey mushrooms) . His work convinced the fungi world that the Armillaria mushroom was somehow parasitizing the Entoloma mushroom, thus creating a funky Entoloma abortivum mutation. But wait, there's more! In recent years the theory has reversed the relationship, as new evidence from fungi experts Tom Volk, Dan Lindner and Harry Burdsall Jr. (Wisconsinites, btw) supports the hypothesis that it is Entoloma that is parasitizing Armillaria, rather than the other way around. And as you might imagine, online mushroom forums are full of lively chatter and debate on the subject. 

Volk also recommends changing the common name of the mushroom from Aborted Entoloma to Aborted Amillaria. I'm kind of partial to our colloquial Pig Snoot, as that's the term I first associated them with when I was introduced to them many years ago by my friend Tom, who I've mentioned in previous mushroom posts. Volk also shares that the Mexican name for the mushroom is the colorful and slightly tongue twisting Totlcoxcatl, which means "turkey wattle". I love that one too.

All of this confusion on who's affecting who, which mutation came first, and just what the heck is this thing really, makes it the CatDog of mushrooms in my book.

 CatDog, one of my favorite cartoons, created by the fantastic Peter Hannan. I am convinced that CatDog frequently dined on Aborted Entoloma.

CatDog, one of my favorite cartoons, created by the fantastic Peter Hannan. I am convinced that CatDog frequently dined on Aborted Entoloma.

So, what does all of this scientific mushroom mystery and theater have to do with your pursuit of tasty pig snoots? I'm not sure...maybe nothing. But it certainly is interesting, and ought to, I think, enhance our appreciation for this seasonal delicacy.

A nice harvest of Pig Snoots.

Properly identifying pig snoots is pretty simple, as there are no mushrooms that it could reasonably be mistaken for. Look for these characteristics:

  • White body, perhaps with bits of gray or dull salmon, particularly in the interior.
  • Texture is firm to spongy, pithy, with no discernable directional grain. 
  • Absence of gills.
  • Knobby and misshapen in appearance (also descriptively called "ground prunes" in some locales). No discernable stem, or at best a very abbreviated stem. 
  • Aroma is somewhat mealy and earthy. 
  • Found in the dirt at the base of both living and dead trees and stumps, as well as on open ground where the soil is rich.
  • Fruit in autumn, September and October here in Wisconsin. 

Note the very short, woody stems on the central mushrooms. Other aborted entoloma may not even display this much visible stem. 

Pig snoots are best prepared soon after harvesting, Clean with a brush and a quick rinse in cold water. They can host a few tiny visitors, especially on their undersides, so be sure to be thorough in your cleaning and don't be afraid to cut off any mushy or undesirable spots. Once clean and dried with a soft towel I usually space them out on a wire rack to allow them to dry and firm up a little bit more. I've had no success, however, with drying them for preservation. Slice to uniform thickness of about a ¼".

I prefer to fry or saute pig snoots fairly quickly at a little higher heat, in butter or bacon grease. They are rather spongy and will soak up any oil, butter or bacon fat in the pan. A pinch of salt and pepper, and maybe an even more stingy pinch of ground nutmeg is good for seasoning. Cook them until they brown, and that's it. Then you can add them to whatever you want or just eat them as they are. I find it best to cook them before adding to a dish, as opposed to adding them raw and cooking in the dish itself. I like my pig snoots with eggs, rice, noodles and on sandwiches, although when I serve them to company I may refer to them as Totlcoxcatl, just because it sounds more elegant.

Aborted Entoloma, Aborted Armillarias, Pig Snoots, Ground Prunes, Totlcoxcatl or whatever you choose to call them, these amorphous fungi are fun to hunt - every one is unique - and very good to eat. 

* You can read Tom Volk's account of the developments associated with Aborted Armillaria, as well as view more images, at Tom Volk's Fungi. He also shares a link to the paper he, Lindner and Burdsall presented, which details their research into the relationship between Entoloma, Armillaria and their aborted "offspring".

Acorn flour

I've always been fascinated by acorns, ever since I was a little kid. I loved the Looney Tunes cartoons with Mac and Tosh, the Goofy Gophers, and the two rodents' obsessive desire to collect truckloads of acorns while outwitting loggers or Elmer Fudd. When hunting or hiking through the woods I would, and often still do, invariably come home with a pocket full of the smooth-shelled little nuts, just for the pleasure of examining and admiring their symmetrical beauty.

Acorns

I tried eating them several times as a youngster, figuring that if the squirrels loved them they must be good. But whenever I cracked them open and chewed the hard nuts inside I found that their flavor ranged from barely palatable to only okay, and ultimately deemed that while they must be edible on some level they were probably a food that only squirrels could truly appreciate.  

Then, as a teenager I read Euell Gibbons. That changed everything. Gibbon's brief chapter, and the first food-specific chapter in his Stalking the Wild Asparagus, was about acorns and their use as a reliable food source both historically and presently. He even compared them favorably with candied chestnuts when prepared in a similar manner. All I needed to do, according to Gibbons, was learn and practice the process of leaching with water the bitter tannins from the acorn nutmeats. Badaboom badabing, acorn hurdle solved!

I don't use acorns much as whole or pieced nuts, but more often like to make flour from them. So that's what we'll look at in this post. I've used both hot water and cold water leaching methods to process acorns. They both work, and they both yield different results as far as flavor, color and texture of the finished product is concerned. The best and most thorough discussion I've ever seen on the leaching process is found in Sam Thayer's excellent book, Nature's Garden. Thayer explains in detail several leaching techniques, as well as the entire operation of processing acorns, from collection to shelling to grinding to leaching and more. But his discussion on identifying and delineating good, worthy acorns from bad, weevil infested acorns is what I found most impressive. The man has collected, processed and eaten many hundreds of pounds of acorns in his life, and his knowledge on the subject is unsurpassed. 


Here's how I processed a few pounds of acorns into flour recently.

1. Sort and clean. Upon returning home after collecting the acorns I placed them in a sink full of cold water and swished them around. This serves to clean them and to further separate sound acorns from damaged acorns. Acorns that are weevil damaged will float, and you can easily skim those from the water and dispose of them (see images below of damaged acorns, but we'll talk more in depth about weevils and other acorn and oak issues in a future article). The ones that sink are not all necessarily weevil or otherwise damage free, but the ones that float surely are damaged, So, by skimming the floaters you've effectively eliminated the sure losers right away. And don't wait to do this; do it while your acorns are freshly collected. If you let them sit around for a week before getting to them the good ones will begin to dry a bit, and as they dry they become more buoyant, and some that are good may float along with the ones that are damaged, making the float test imprecise.

Acorns with weevil exit holes. These acorns are no good.

2. Shell and dry. I only collected a few pounds of acorns on this outing so I decided to shell them immediately and then dry the nutmeats. You could also dry the nuts in the shell, and then shell them later at your convenience. I just had the time and inclination to do everything right away with this batch. Once the nuts dry they have a long shelf life as most nuts do (I've still got dried butternuts in the shell from last year to get to). 

There are several of ways to shell acorns. To crack the shells you can use a nutcracker, or place them in a cloth bag or under a towel and hit them with a hammer, or ""peel" them with a knife if the shells haven't dried out and are still pliable. Thayer has a very interesting shelling method he calls "the towel method", which makes use of, yes, a towel and a "stomper", a 5'- or 6'-long smooth pestle-shaped heavy piece of wood. I won't describe his process here, but encourage you to purchase his book so you can read about it yourself. Whatever method you choose to remove the shells from the nutmeats is fine. I've used them all and they all work to one degree or another. With this small batch I chose to peel them with a knife because the shells were pliable enough and I could do it while sitting and watching a football game on TV (and the Packers won...so now I feel like I have to shell acorns during every game).

I would take an acorn and, with small sharp knife in my right hand, would make two or three quick, shallow vertical cuts into the shell from top to bottom of the acorn by rocking or arcing the knife edge with some pressure along the surface of the shell, effectively creating one or two elliptical or teardrop shaped patterns in the shell. Then, using the edge of the knife or a fingernail I'd pry or peel the little teardrop of shell from its place, trying to bring the inner "bark" or lining of the shell with it. Once that first piece was removed it was a simple matter to pop the rest of the shell off the nutmeat. This sounds more involved than it really is, but once you get into the rhythm of it it takes just a few seconds to shell each nut.

During the shelling process you will also inevitably find acorns that are black and damaged that you didn't discover earlier. Just toss them out. Once all of the acorns are shelled you need to check them over again for any bits of shell or chaff that may be hanging around. It's not a bad idea to give them another wash in the sink. You can grab a handful of the nutmeats and rub them between your palms underwater. This will also help to loosen and remove some of the testa, a brown skin like that which covers peanuts, that may be attached to the nutmeat. 

Once you've got everything shelled and cleaned the tough manual labor part of the process is over. Drain the nuts in a colander and lay them out on towels or on baking sheets to dry a bit. I wanted to hurry the process along so I dried them by placing them in the oven at the lowest setting and with the door ajar. They darkened a bit while in the oven, but that's okay. You can now let them dry completely and store them in an airtight container, or proceed with the next steps straight away.

Shelled acorns drying.

3. Chop and grind. Acorn nuts are hard, too hard to grind as larger pieces in a countertop coffee grinder. I know this because I burned one out trying to do just that. With the small quantity I had on this day I simply roughly chopped the acorns with a chef's knife as I might chop walnuts and then, once I had more or less uniformly small pieces, used a food processor to further pulverize them. Add enough water to the chopped acorns in the food processor to help chop them up. You probably won't be able to get acorns small enough with a food processor to qualify as flour, but you can get them pretty small, like grits or course corn meal in consistency. That's okay because they're now small enough for a coffee grinder to handle them, and certainly small enough to make using a mortar and pestle less taxing.

Acorn grits.

4. Leaching. I now had a pail full of gritty acorn slurry. I could strain and dry it, and then grind it even more finely before leaching. Leaching smaller particles is more efficient for removing tannins; larger particles require more leaching time. But I chose to begin the leaching process with this grittier quantity and then grind it into flour afterward. 

The method I generally use for cold leaching is an old one: simply immerse the thing to be leached in numerous changes of water. When camping once I filled a cloth bag with acorn nutmeats and tied it to a stick in the shallow water of the lake we were camping near. Here at home I just use a giant glass jar.

  • Place the acorn flour or grits into the jar no more than a third of the way up.
  • Fill the jar with cold water and give it a good stir.
  • Let it sit in the fridge for several hours or even a day at a time.
  • Drain or decant the water from the particulates that settle on the bottom.
  • Repeat, over and over and over, until the nuts no longer taste bitter.

One of my acorn leaching jars.

I let this batch leach for a week-and-a-half. The color of the water is not an indicator of when the process is complete (it won't become clear); you have to use taste as your guide. Be patient...this is simple and doesn't require much interference on your part, it's just very time consuming.

Once the acorns lose their bitterness, you'll want to squeeze out as much water as you possibly can. Set a strainer or colander over a bowl, line it with cheesecloth or a tea towel, scoop in a softball-size blob of acorn mush, bring the corners of the cloth together and begin twisting it to tighten the ball more and more. Squeeze the ball with your hands as hard as you can to get as much moisture out as possible. When you remove the acorn mush from the cloth it will be like a ball of sandy clay if it's gritty to begin with. Repeat with all of the acorn mush. 

Straining and squeezing after leaching.

NOTE: The moisture that you wring from the acorn mash can be used if you wish. It's not quite the same as the leaching water drained from the jar each day. It's a little more milky, so to speak, and it's got some flavor and nutrients. I used this particular acorn milk to poach a chicken in that I used in a mushroom and chicken potpie.

Ball of clay-like acorn flour. 

5. Dry. Next, I spread the acorn grits onto a couple of baking sheets, breaking up the bigger clumps with a fork, and again set them in the oven at its lowest setting and with the door ajar, stirring occasionally, until they were completely dry. 

6. Grind into flour. Now I had a good quantity of dry, tan-colored acorn grits, the consistency of sand. A coffee grinder could handle these particles pretty easily, and in no time at all I ground everything into fine flour. Store the acorn flour in a dry container or sack as you would any flour. You can use acorn flour like you might any non-wheat grain or nut flour. Add it to recipes for breads, pastas, gravies and so on. Among other things, I'll be using it to make pie crusts for meat and mushroom pies I have on our Thanksgiving menu. We'll share those recipes with you when we make them.

One jar of finished acorn flour.

I'd wager that there are oak trees near where you live, maybe even in your own yard. Why let the squirrels have all of those tasty acorns. With the quantity of acorns that an oak tree can produce, chances are that there are enough for both you and the squirrels to enjoy.

 

Puffball mushrooms

This is the second in a series of three successive mushroom posts, sparked by our recent forays into the woods where we harvested honey mushrooms, puffballs and aborted entoloma. 

Giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) are perhaps the easiest mushroom to confidently ID. I mean, how many mushrooms grow to such enormous size, look like big white volleyballs, and are almost impossible to not see when their fruiting bodies appear. There are several species of puffball, and many of them are edible, but for this post we're really only interested in the giants. 

A couple of modest though still impressive examples of calvatia gigantea.

Of course their size is the first key to identifying a puffball. Generally growing from softball to basketball size they can, however, get much larger. I believe the largest one on record is 66" in circumference; that's five-and-a-half feet around! The biggest I've ever found was the size of a basketball, with most being near volleyball-size. 

Three big puffballs on a forest floor. There were several more smaller ones a few yards away from this triad.

Things get a bit humorous for we puffball hunters come autumn, when the mushrooms begin appearing. I don't know how many times I've hit the brakes while driving or pulled over to the side of the road upon seeing a large puffball setting in the grass somewhere, only to discover that the suspect actually is a volleyball or white pail or even something white but not remotely resembling a ball at all. But one is correct often enough that the occasional embarrassment of being fooled is worth it. 

Giant puffballs grow on grass or the forest floor, not on wood as do many other mushrooms. That makes them even more conspicuous. They also grow singly and not in clusters, although it is not uncommon to find several growing in proximity of one another. Every year we get a few softball-sized ones in our yard. They're small and have rougher, faceted skins than do giant puffballs, which leads me to think they may be a species of Sculpted Puffball (see image below), but my understanding is that sculpted puffballs are primarily a western species. I'm not sure, but I do know that they are edible and delicious.

I'm thinking these two may be a species of sculpted puffball, which are practically the same in all respects except for the skin texture to giant puffballs.

Skin texture of giant puffball.

The skin of the large puffballs is leathery, in both texture and thickness. It is easy to peel off, which should be done prior to preparing for the table. The interior of a good, edible puffball is beautiful in its pure, clean, unblemished whiteness. The texture is something akin to a firm, dry marshmallow (no stickiness) or a dense foam such as you might find in certain packing materials. Upon examining the inside, if you see any discoloration, any yellowing or greening, that means that the mushroom is beginning to turn and that its spores are developing in order to soon be released. You may as well toss the mushroom in that case, because it will not taste good at all. Toss it in your yard and maybe you'll get lucky next year with some puffball offspring.

Cleaning puffballs is as easy as wiping the surface with a damp cloth, although you should also give the underside where the mushroom attached to the ground a good examination, as puffballs are a desirable food source for a number of creepy-crawlies, especially millipedes. If you have some buggy diners working their way into the mushroom you can simply cut away the portion that they have claimed and, if the rest of the mushroom is white and firm, make good use of the remainder.

Puffballs do not have a good shelf life. You usually need to use them within two or three days before they start to turn. Refrigerating them may extend the shelf life a bit, but once they start to discolor they go very quickly indeed. I haven't yet come upon a preservation method that I really like. As far as I'm concerned, puffballs really are a seasonal food and are at their best when prepared immediately. Their ephemeral quality somehow makes them all the more special, I think.

Slicing a giant puffball. Note the clean white flesh and leather-like outer skin. i sliced this one with a chef's knife, which makes a little rougher cut, so that you can get a better sense of the texture of the meat of the mushroom. Compare to the image below of the puffball I sliced with a fillet knife.

Slicing a small puffball. I like to use a fillet knife for most puffball slicing, but a rougher cut may be preferred when breading and frying the mushroom, as it leaves a nice rough surface for the wash and breading to stick to.

Peeling the skin of a slice.

Peeling a small puffball. 1 of 3.

Peeling a small puffball. 2 of 3.

Peeling a small puffball. Came off like a rubber shower cap. 3 of 3.

To prepare you'll usually slice slabs or "steaks" off the mushroom, around ¼" to ½" in thickness. I think the best tool to use to slice puffballs is a sharp fish filleting knife. The cuts made with a fillet knife make a smoother and more even cut through the mushroom. Most everyone I know cooks puffballs one of two ways: one, lightly salt and pepper the slice, and saute in oil and/or butter until golden brown, or two, coat with a milk/egg wash before dusting with salted and peppered flour and frying in oil. Either of these methods is simple, easy and reliably delicious. If you use a flour coating you can of course also play with the spicing of the flour, adding things like cayenne, garlic powder or whatever suits your fancy. I like to add a pinch of fresh nutmeg to the flour, but don't ever overdo the spice lest the delicate flavor of the mushroom be overpowered.

 

Breakfast of scrambled eggs and fried breaded puffball mushroom.

Fried or sauteed puffball has a consistency and texture I'd liken to tofu. But of course the flavor is uniquely its own. You can also dice the puffball and add to soups or rice and risotto dishes. Another interesting and fun way we've used puffballs is as sandwich filling, sauteing puffball slices and adding to turkey sandwiches or to BLTs for a whole new spin on those classic sandwiches.

However you choose to prepare it, when you bring home a big puffball mushroom that you saw and snagged on the way home or discovered while intentionally foraging for them, you can be assured that you will get a lot of oohs and aahs and curious comments about this strange, large white ball of mushroomy goodness.

 

Honey mushrooms

Last weekend I wrote about a recent mushroom hunting trek, where we were successful in finding at least three varieties of edible mushrooms in good quantities. We went out again the following day and harvested even more (shown below).  One of the varieties we harvested was the honey mushroom, so let's talk a bit about those right now.

Some of the mushrooms we harvested on a pleasant October Sunday afternoon. Honey mushrooms (armillaria mellea) in the basket and on the small white plate.

I think it's a good idea to know or have at hand the scientific, Latin names of mushrooms you may wish to consume, especially if there is any possibility of confusing them with any other mushroom. Knowing a species' taxonomic name will enable you to do a precise search for information on the mushroom, which in turn will allow you to go through the very specific identifying markers for that species. Plus, it's just pretty neat to be able to use a little Latin whenever you get an opportunity. Honey mushrooms are classified as Armillariella mellea (or perhaps better said, armillariella mellea is commonly known as the honey mushroom).

Honey mushrooms.

Where I live people also call honey mushrooms "buttons", potentially confusing the identification of the mushroom even further for anyone not a native to the area, as button mushrooms are the more widely accepted name Ofagaricus bisporus, the common white mushroom we find in grocery store produce sections. With apologies to my fellow local mushroom hunters I'll use the more widely accepted name, honey mushroom, rather than buttons, for Armillariella mellea.

My first encounter with honey mushrooms was in high school when my friend Tom, who I spoke of in last week's post, showed them to me in the woods his family owned behind their home. Back then I hunted squirrel, deer and the occasional ruffed grouse in their woods, and one day Tom introduced me to honey mushrooms (he called them buttons) and Entoloma abortivum, which he called pig snoots (we'll talk pig snoots in a separate blogpost). Tom learned how to identify and collect these mushrooms from his father, who also referred to them by the colloquial names Tom used. We collected a pail full of both kinds and sauteed them in butter. That particular afternoon trek, and its delicious harvest, was another one of those revelatory moments that foragers like me point to in our history of pivotal foodie experiences.

Up until then I had known about and purposely hunted for only two wild mushrooms: morels and giant puffballs. Mushrooms other than those two easily identifiable species had seemed a little daunting, so I pretty much just stuck to the two I knew I could not confuse with anything else. But suddenly, with Tom's tutelage on "buttons" and "pig snoots", my knowledge base, as well as my wild mushroom menu, instantly doubled. Once I saw how relatively simple it was to visually confirm the identities of a couple of mushrooms I had not known until then, I became enthusiastic at the prospect of increasing my personal edible mushroom catalog even further. The ensuing years saw me add more wild mushrooms to my list, including maitaki, sulphur shelf, dryad's saddle, shaggy mane, chanterelle, black trumpet, and more. But there are many more mushrooms that I am still not knowledgeable or confident about, that I could easily confuse with toxic look-similars. No doubt one's fungi education could continue for a lifetime.

Back to honeys...  

Of the edible fungi that I am confident about correctly identifying, honey mushrooms are the ones that require the most attention to detail, because they can vary slightly in appearance, although there are some markers that are pretty constant to help enable confident identification. Let's go through them.

1) Location. Most commonly associated with hardwoods (oaks have been our favorite partner tree), especially around old stumps and rotting timber. If found on open ground there's a good chance that the soil is hiding the rotting remains of a tree or fallen limbs. It's been rare that we've found isolated honey mushrooms; usually they are found in clusters where they are either tightly grouped and overlapping or within no more that a couple of feet from one another. Autumn is the time we hunt for honeys, although I understand that in some regions they may appear year-round.

Mature honey mushrooms covering an old stump.

Mature honey mushrooms in a loose grouping near a rotting stump. Likely rotting wood in the soil below.

2) Cap. The caps of young honey mushrooms are noticeably different from those of older mushrooms. Immature honey caps are bulbous and domed, but they spread out and become planar, depressed or occasionally umbonate as they continue to grow. The young honeys more aptly conform to the description of "buttons" than do their mature versions. Cap color varies from yellowy-tan to reddish-brown or cinnamon, with the ones we usually find of the rusty red-brown variation. It's worth noting that the name of the honey mushroom refers to its coloring, not its flavor, and, as we know, honey also varies in hue from light blonde to reddish to darker browns, depending on the primary flowers used by the bees. Cap color is not always a sure-fire key with some mushrooms. Colors vary by degree and may also be dependant upon things like location (terroir), prolonged weather or climate conditions, age of mushroom and other variables. Color is an important key identifier, but it should be taken into consideration with all of the other identification keys.

A more vital key to honey mushroom cap identification, especially on the younger, more desirable mushrooms, is the presence of tiny, scaly "hairs", that look not unlike a man's 5-o'clock shadow or like teeny-tiny feathers (see image below). As the mushrooms age and the caps widen and become more planar these tiny scales or hairs kind of flatten out and the cap surface may become smoother and somewhat mottled or speckled in appearance.

 Small, immature honey mushrooms.

3) Gills. The gills of honey mushrooms are most often decurrent, which means that they attach to and run down the stem for some short distance. The underside of younger honeys, where the gills are located, also displays a cottony or spider-webby veil that is attached from the stalk to the rim of the cap, and which covers the gills. The veil is mostly gone or broken by the time the mushroom matures and the cap flattens out. See the image above for a good example of the veil on the upturned mushrooms.

Mature honey mushrooms.

4) Stalk. The stalk is fibrous and pithy, with a white interior and a whitish to brown, mottled exterior. In mature mushrooms it appears relatively straight and symmetrical, although in young mushrooms it may also appear a bit bulbous at the bottom. Some stalks will show a ring where the veil was attached and some will not, so there's not a hard and fast rule concerning the presence of a ring.

5) Spore print. Spore prints are an important key identifier, and should be taken as part of identifying any mushroom you are not already completely familiar with. Sometimes a spore print can be the confirming key in identifying a mushroom, and sometimes it can be the one key that firmly declares that the mushroom you think is a honey mushroom is actually not, and that is indeed a very good thing to know. The spore print of honey mushrooms is white. To take a spore print you simply lay a cap, gills side down and with stem removed, on two pieces of paper, one dark and one white, and allow it to sit undisturbed for a few hours. Remove the cap and check the color of the spores that were deposited.

Below is a print I unintentionally made on our stove top, which has a mottled black surface. You can see the white pattern or print left by the spores. Also, sometimes when you find honey mushrooms tightly clustered and overlapping, mushrooms that lie partially covered by ones above will show white spore deposits on their caps from the mushrooms above. 

There is a toxic mushroom that looks similar in some respects to mature honey mushrooms, the Deadly Galerina (Galerina autumnnalis). The spore print of the galerina is brown or rusty brown.

White spore print of a honey mushroom.

Take another look at the image in the middle of this post of the "Small, immature honey mushrooms" and note the following keys again:

The fuzzy or "whiskery" surface of the tops of the caps shown.

  • The cottony veil on the larger upturned mushroom - the veil is attached to the stem and outer rim of the cap, and still covers some of the gills.
  • How the gills attach and briefly continue down the stem.
  • The appearance and coloration of the stem, both outer surface and interior.

Honey mushrooms are a wide ranging popular edible (popular around here anyway; I've heard that in some places they are not highly desirable). They are richly flavored and lend themselves well to drying as a means of preserving them (although they can toughen and be a bit chewy when dried). I like them sauteed in butter and olive oil, added to egg and risotto dishes, game dishes such as squirrel, venison or grouse, or as toppings for hamburgers, steak or meatloaf. 

Dried honey mushrooms.

As with any new mushroom, be absolutely sure of its identity, refer to several sources and at least one knowledgeable mushroomer to confirm your assessment, and try only a small amount at your first eating. That's good advice for any food, as people have all sorts of reactions to all sorts of foods, both domestic and wild. When learning about a new mushroom or wild edible it's smart to have several texts at hand. Fortunately, there are good ones out there and the catalog of books on mushroom identification seems to be growing each year. Here are just three that I have stacked on my desk at this very moment:

Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora; Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America by David Fischer and Alan Bessette; North American Mushrooms; A Field Guide to Edible and Inedible Fungi by Orson Miller Jr and Hope Miller.

 

Mushroom hunting

I love early autumn. Being in the woods anytime of year is fantastic, but autumn always seems a little bit extra special, Maybe it's the easy though abrupt way we slide into it from summer. It's such a comfortable transition, from cargo shorts and tee shirts to denim jacket and bluejeans. I can still enjoy my morning coffee on the porch without the extra layers that winter demands.

Certainly the smell of the autumn woods plays a part, with its heady perfume of earth and decaying leaf matter. No denying memory and personal history either. Fall was when, as a little kid, I looked forward to squirrel hunting with my Dad, as well as the peacefulness of bowhunting by myself when I got older.

It's the time of year when things are easier to spot, as thick green underbrush and canopy give way to a sparser landscape of browns and grays. It's also the season when new aisles open up in Mother Nature's grocery store, with nuts, fruits, berries and, maybe my favorite, autumn mushrooms. Puffballs, honey mushrooms, shaggy mane, buttons, pig snoots, maitaki, chicken mushrooms and more. Mushrooms are the ultimate treasure hunt edible.

This weekend I found myself alone in the house as wife and kids were off doing their own things.  The urge to get into the woods is always stronger when I've got "me time" like that, so I headed just outside of town to my friend Tom's place in the country. Tom's been a friend for many years, since our junior high school days on the wrestling team. He's a rural fella who can build anything and do it with a good measure of artistic flair. He built his own house, using a lot of reclaimed and repurposed materials, on the edge of a sweet little woods that has been in his family for quite a while. It's a wood that has always been good for edibles of both the plant and animal kind, and in fall I especially enjoy its reliability for squirrel and mushrooms.

The peak above Tom's garage, in the home he built.

Shed doors

 

 

So, yesterday I drove out on a morning with a sky that promised rain at some point. Nobody was home when I arrived so I left a note in the door and began walking the forest with eyes to the ground.  A few times along the way I would stop and just breathe in the rich aroma of damp forest earth, rotting tree stumps, pine needles and still falling oak leaves. I got excited when I found 4 or 5 very small Aborted entoloma, what Tom calls pig snoots, at the base of a small tree (Pig snoots is the more colorful local name for the mushroom that I first heard from Tom when he showed me this mushroom many years ago.)

Aborted Entoloma or Pig Snoot

I also found an impressive layer of viable acorns on a trail beneath one tall oak. Even though mushrooms were my intended target the ease with which I could harvest the nuts was enough to convince me to change my focus for a little while. Most of them had begun to sprout but the tiny curling tendrils that poked through the shells would not adversely affect the quality of the nutmeats inside. I cracked a couple open with my teeth, chewed the cream-colored meat, and found them to be solid and not overly bitter. I took 20 minutes and gathered about a half-gallon worth. I'll share the processing routine for acorns in another post soon.

Not far from the acorn spot I came upon a small area with a few rotting stumps, around which were dozens of honey mushrooms (what folks around here also call buttons ). Most of them were in advanced stages of development, with wide, flattened caps, but there were a number of smaller young mushrooms mixed in as well. I picked a few handfuls of all sizes.

Continuing my directionless meandering I stumbled upon a really exciting sight: Three giant puffball mushrooms, just a few feet from one another, each about the size of a small volleyball. I also spotted a couple of smaller puffballs several yards away. I left the small ones but picked the three large ones and tried to gently lay them in my bag so as not to crush the pig snoots and honey mushrooms already in there. Only two would fit in the bag so I carried the third and made my way back to the house to see if Tom had arrived home yet.

Giant Puffball mushrooms.

Two of the three big puffballs. The makings of some good eating.

He and his wife Barb had returned, and Tom and I decided to go back into the woods where he promised to show me a spot that had always produced a good amount of pig snoots/aborted entoloma. Sure enough, as soon as we got there we began finding the odd-shaped, white mushrooms poking through the leaf litter. We picked two or three dozen before moving on to the spot where I had found the honey mushrooms, where Tom confirmed their identity and we picked a dozen or so more. It's always a good idea to have another experienced mushroomer confirm what you've got, and as Tom is the one who first introduced me to honey mushrooms (buttons) I felt good about his expert confirmation. The sky that had been threatening a couple hours earlier finally opened the gates and we got absolutely deluged. I was rain-soaked down to my underwear, so we called it a day, and a pretty successful day at that..

A good haul.

Breakfast: egg fold-over with forest mushrooms in bacon fat with chard, garlic, leek and parmesan cheese.

When I got home I cleaned everything and began cracking acorns. This morning I fried a handful of mushrooms with eggs and began drying several more in the oven for storing long-term. I'm planning to head back out after the Packer game today, to help Tom cut some firewood and to hunt for more mushrooms. I'll also make a post in the next few days on identifying and processing these particular varieties of mushroom. Right now, it's almost kick-off and the Packers need my attention. Go Pack!

 

Sometimes hazelnuts are more than hazelnuts

It's been a couple years since I harvested any hazelnuts. Last year at this time I was working a lot of hours in a commercial kitchen and didn't get out into the countryside near as much as I prefer, so my foraging time was a shadow of what it had been both prior to and following that job. This year has been a struggle at times, without the steady paycheck, but peace of mind and fullness of spirit means a helluva lot more than a paycheck with stress and negativity attached to it. And up to now I've been able to find a way to keep us in tucker and keep the lights on. Darn few complaints.

Finding just a few dozen hazelnuts today reminded me that it's been two years since I last harvested any, that last year was a "lost year" in some respects, and that I need to make an effort to keep certain things - like foraging for hazelnuts or fishing for bluegills with my daughters or shooting my bow - alive and active even while doing the things that are necessary but perhaps more soul dampening.

Funny how looking down at a handful of nuts can light up the synapses that way.

Today my friend and fellow culinary adventurer Christine and I took a drive over to Brillion, to the homestead of the brother of a friend (thanks Glenn!) wherein lay fruit trees bearing more goodies than they can use right now. That's also one of the cool things about having friends who know I'm a forager and cook, I periodically get generous offers and opportunities like this one to glean or harvest fruits and veg. Christine and I made good use of our time by harvesting three or four varieties of apples, pears, some plums, a pail full of fuzzy quince, and a couple pints of blackberries and elderberries. 

We then drove over to a small county park in the southern part of the county, where Christine was excited to pick a bucket full of wild grapes and we spied the aforementioned hazelnuts (I also found a nice nannyberry tree, though most of the nannyberries were well past their prime). The hazelnuts excited me the most, because, as I said above, for some reason - maybe simply because I haven't had any in my hands for a while, and I do love them so - they reinforced to me why this path we're on is important. 

Hazelnuts in their leafy husks.

Nut hiding inside its husk.

There is something so fundamentally satisfying and spirit enhancing in harvesting something that is both nourishing and delicious, and aesthetically interesting, from the branch of a tree. That holds true for everything I use to feed my family, be it a nut from a tree, a root from the earth, an egg from the duck coop, a trout from a river, a grouse or deer from the woods. All of these things are beautiful and pleasing to look at, and they speak to the artist in me. All of these things connect me to the daydreams and life stories I envisioned in my youth. All of these things provide creative sustenance for the body, mind and spirit.

It's about more than food, but it's also entirely about food. It can be as deep or as simple as you want to make it, and simple or deep are each pretty darn interesting. We buy less from the grocer but we surely eat better than we ever have. Our food is more enjoyable, more worthy of conversation, more central to our daily life. I think that is how it should be. I'm happy that a handful of wild hazelnuts can compel me to think about bigger things. I'm happy too that I can just crack them open and simply enjoy their deliciousness for a few minutes.

Hazelnuts

Crushing grapes

It's fruit season! So many of the various domestic and wild fruits are ripening and ready for harvest. It's also time to pull my old car-jack apple press from the mothballs and get it set up for another season of making cider and apple wine. Next week we'll be building and filming a bicycle-powered apple crusher to keep at Josh's house in Green Bay. 

Yesterday was a cold and drizzly day, so I spent a good portion of it processing some of the fruit we've harvested up to now. I decided to manually crush some of the grapes we've amassed, for no other reason than because I wanted to get my hands right into the mix and play. Result: 5 gallons of wild grape juice fermenting and sore hands.

Filming Creative Sustenance & 2 days of foraging

Thursday afternoon we filmed what I think will be a great segment of Creative Sustenance. We've got a lot of film in the can from this summer already, and a lot of editing work to do. Essentially, we've taken more time to film than we have to edit what we've filmed. 

Yesterday (Thursday) we shot in woods where we harvested wild grapes and hickory nuts. It was a fun, and somewhat tiring shoot, as we made a good hike to a couple of really beautiful locations. Insect activity was in full force in the prairie location and I think we got some fantastic shots of the life that was teeming there. 

Wild grapes and hickory nuts.

The woods we were in has become one of my favorite foraging locations. It's a veritable grocery store of wild edibles. In addition to the hickory nuts and wild grapes that we harvested we also found apples, highbush cranberries, mushrooms and more. I'm hoping to begin the editing process in earnest so that we can get some of these videos out to you soon.

Today I spent several hours foraging with my friend Christine Mittnacht. We had some pretty impressive success, filling several pails and totes with multiple varieties of apples and pears. Christine is a culinary school graduate, as well as owner along with her husband Brian of Taproot Farm & Kitchen in the countryside south of Manitowoc. You'll be learning more about her and Taproot in the weeks to come as we plan to film some butchery, farm and cooking segments with her.

Foraged apples and pears.

But for right now, I've got some more apples, pears, grapes and hickory nuts to clean and process.

Plums

Last week a friend who has some plum and apple trees called and asked if we would want to harvest what we could from them, as the trees were producing more than they could use. Of course we said yes! So we drove out with baskets and bags and spent two beautiful Wisconsin mornings in the countryside picking juicy yellow plums and tart organic apples. 

Branches loaded with yellow plums. Kim picking apples in the background.

One of two laundry baskets full of plums.

I don't know the variety of the smallish apples but I'm planning to go back for more, as they will make some delicious cider and apple wine. We processed the plums by rinsing them well and removing the stones, which was a lengthy, sticky, gooey and enjoyable task. The effort resulted in two 5-gallon pails full of plum pulp and 9 jelly jars of gently sweet plum jelly that I made last night. The plum mash in the pails are in the first stage of fermentation on their way to becoming what will hopefully be some fantastic plum wine and plum brandy or eau de vie.

Plum jelly

Wild Grapes

Quick post showing some wild grapes (aka riverbank grapes or frost grapes) we harvested yesterday. We'll be posting more in the next week or so on the grape harvest and wine & jelly making sessions that result.

Wild grapes

Approximately 14 gallons worth of wild grapes

Tomato Paste

The fantastic harvest of tomatoes we're getting this year has me finding more ways to use and preserve them. Yesterday I made tomato paste, which is one of those pantry items that has so many uses in the kitchen. It's a very simple though somewhat time consuming process, but it doesn't require your complete attention throughout, as the stove does most of the work for you. Making your own tomato paste also lets you customize it to your own liking. This recipe makes a paste that is thick and rich, with a lovely smoky quality.

Finished tomato paste

Ingredients: 

  • tomatoes, 5 to 7 pounds
  • olive oil, about  ½ cup
  • sea or kosher salt
  • garlic, 3 or 4 cloves
  • onion,  ½ of a medium sized
  • pimenton (hot smoked paprika), 2 tsp
  • thyme, 6 or 7 sprigs, just the leaves
  • cracked black pepper, 1 tsp

1) Seed and rough chop the tomatoes. I save all of the seeds and jelly juice, add a little salt and pepper and drink it as a breakfast tomato juice.

2) Add the olive oil to a deep pot and heat at medium high. Add the seeded tomatoes and a bit of salt, stir to mix and thoroughly coat the tomatoes. Let it cook until the tomatoes soften into mush, stirring every so often. Then turn the heat down to simmer and let the mixture reduce dramatically, until it is thick and perhaps 1/5 of its original volume. Give it a stir fairly often to keep the bottom from burning and sticking. This will take a few hours.

3) Mince and press the garlic cloves into a paste. Dice the ½ onion super-fine - you could use a food processor if you have a small one. I just diced mine repeatedly until I practically had an onion paste. Finely dice the thyme leaves until you get something that's almost a powder. Add the garlic, onion and thyme to the tomato puree. Add the pimenton, black pepper, and salt if you think it needs more. Mix well.

4) There will be tomato skins in the puree. You could have removed those in the usual way earlier in the process (briefly scalding the tomatoes, ice bath and peeling prior to cooking) but I hate to waste anything that has flavor, so I pureed everything in a food processor.

5)  Spread the tomato mixture onto a baking sheet and spread it around. Place into a 300° oven for around an hour or so. Give the paste a good stirring with a rubber spatula. Place it back in until enough liquid evaporates so that it's think and brick red in color, maybe a ½-hour more, depending on how much you reduced it while on the stove-top.

About to go into the oven

Let it cool and jar it up. It should last in your fridge for quite a while, at least a month, unless you use it all before then, which will probably be the case because this stuff is just so good. Use the tomato paste as a pizza sauce, bruschetta topping, sandwich spread (we made chicken sandwiches with it), add to soups, mix with a bit of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic for a fantastic dressing, add to your homemade barbecue sauce, spread it on an omelet in the morning, You could even use it as a homemade ice cream flavoring (don't knock it til you try it!). This paste is sweet, salty and smoky, and it smells as good as it tastes. After making it we ran a few errands and upon walking into the house we exclaimed, "Mmmm, this place smells like pizza joint!"

Finished tomato paste

Nocino update

Today I took the second step in making nocino, the walnut flavored liqueur I started over a month ago. The original July 23 blogpost is here. Today I filtered the walnuts and lemon peel from the alcohol, made the spiced simple syrup, and added it to the tea-stained alcohol. I'll let it sit for at least another 40 or more days before sampling.

Nocino, step II, strained, spiced simple syrup added.

The death of a duck

This morning when I went out to feed and release the ducks from the coop I found that our brown hen had died overnight. I pretty much expected to find her as such. She'd been declining steadily over the past couple weeks, until yesterday when she could not muster the energy to even waddle away from me when I reached down to pick her up. She felt fragile, weighing, it seemed, half as much as she did just two or three weeks earlier. 

The girls had named her Chloe, but I mostly just referred to her and the others according to their coloring. The black duck, the brown duck, the male or drake. Chloe was the brown duck. I tried to find the reason for her illness online, but none of them really nailed all of her symptoms. Until one person in a poultry chat forum mentioned that ducks can suffer from depression and even die from it. So I looked that up as well, and while there wasn't a whole lot of information on duck depression what I did find made sense, especially considering the sequence of events that initiated and lead to her decline.

Chloe, the brown duck on the right. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

She had always been something of a third wheel in the trio of ducks we had, obsequious in her manner to the drake and the black female. When the black hen became broody and spent more than a month glued to her clutch of eggs, the brown hen suddenly had full and unhindered access to the drake, and the two of them made an inseparable pair, although, truth be told, the drake seemed to simply accept her constant presence rather than embrace it. She followed him everywhere, often chattering behind him with that constant head and neck bobbing motion that ducks often use when communicating whatever it is they're communicating.

A good egg layer...the one on the left, that is.

The black hen hatched three ducklings at the end of her brood period. We kept and raised them separately from the adult ducks while the broody black hen continued to sit on another clutch of eggs for another month.  When we finally released the three ducklings, now much larger and able to fend for themselves, into the run with the adults, the dynamic between all of the ducks changed instantly and dramatically.

The drake immediately became aggressive and somewhat obsessed with the new kids on the block, so much so that we had to separate him for fear that he'd harm them. We kept him in the coop while the rest were outside, and vice versa. We noticed that when he became aggressive to the ducklings Chloe would mimic his aggressiveness toward them as well. When he was in the coop Chloe would lay outside the coop near him while the ducklings and the black hen, who had nicely rebonded with her three offspring, tooled happily around the yard, picking at bugs and leaves or just sleeping contentedly in a small group.

Clearly the brown duck, Chloe, was not happy with the new situation. The drake was not interested in her at all, the black hen and the ducklings had their own little family group, and during the times when the whole flock was together she seemed even more ignored by everyone. So, I really think she became depressed. She ate less, was less chatty, and seemed to sulk, inasmuch as a duck can be said to sulk. She became weaker and weaker, would lie down off to the side of the others and finally would not even come out from the coop when the rest were released into the yard. I'm convinced she expired from depression, which makes sense to me as ducks are a very social animal. Never get only a single duck, they say; it's cruel.

Jesse with Chloe, her duck.

So, after I found her this morning I dug a grave next to a lilac tree in the yard, tucked her bill under her wing and laid her into the hole. Animals dying is of course a part of the experience of having animals. I'm no stranger to dead animals, be they farm animals or animals I harvest from the wild. Sometimes they die quietly (like a duck expiring alone overnight), sometimes violently (ducklings get torn apart by raccoons and chickens get mass murdered by weasels all the time). It's not anything to get real worked up over. You just accept it and do your best to prevent it where and when you can. Mostly you just try to give the animals in your charge a good life, and a good death when that time comes too. What always bothers me most is if there's any suffering attached to the death. The brown duck was suffering at the end, and that bothered me, particularly as I didn't know what to do about it. Hopefully I'm smarter about it now. But she did have a very good life up until then, and I'm content about that.


 

Sausage stuffed squash blossoms

Several days ago I pulled a rather large squash vine from the garden that was showing powdery mildew infestation. It was actually one-half of a plant that had an equally long vine trailing in the opposite direction, and since it's mate looked unblemished and had healthy squash attached I didn't feel like it was a great loss to cut and remove this section of the plant. I pulled the 7-foot vine into the driveway to let the sun bake and wilt it before disposing. A couple days later it still looked green and pliant. Even more interestingly, more than a dozen of the previously undeveloped flower heads had fully developed and opened as the severed appendage lay on the cement in the hot sun. 

Rather than allow the bright yellow flowers to go to waste I clipped them and have used them as pizza toppings and stuffed and fried them for breakfast. I've loved the idea and image of stuffed squash blossoms ever since I first saw them in a Italian cookbook back in the 1980s. Even though I've made them many times since then they still strike me as exotic and picturesque.

This morning we made a stuffing of sausage, mushrooms, onions and cheese. The only cheese I had on hand was some ricotta, which is ok but not ideal for stuffing blossoms that are to be fried in oil. You have to fry quickly, lest the ricotta turn liquidy. I'd prefer something like a good parmesan or even a chewy pepperjack, but you work with what you have at hand. So I pre-cooked the sausage with the mushrooms and onions, let it cool and then mixed with the ricotta before stuffing the flowers.

Precooking sausage, mushrooms and onion. Not really necessary if you have a nice firm cheese to add to the mix.

Stuffing the flower.

Some floured, some not yet.

Ready to turn after just a couple minutes.

Once the flowers are stuffed, dust with flour, roll in a beaten egg and then re-roll in flour spiced with salt, pepper and paprika. Fry quickly in heated oil, flipping with tongs after only a minute or two. Add fresh tomatoes, a cool, beautiful morning, and imagine you're in Italy.

What a great way to enjoy breakfast on this first day of September.

Ramp seed capers

Ramps (or wild leeks, as they are often called) have bolted and been going to seed for some time now. Forest floors that several weeks ago were covered with a lush carpet of their elegantly shaped leaves now display a chaotic peppering of skinny stalks topped with green clusters of heart-shaped seed heads. In just a few more weeks those seed heads, now soft and succulent, will crack open to reveal seeds that have hardened into small black BBs.

Ramp seed clusters

But right now those seeds have yet to fully develop, are juicy and crunchy to the bite, and have a much softer though still unmistakable flavor and aroma of garlic and onion. They're also abundant enough to make collecting an easy job. We harvested about a quart's worth in no time at all.

Ramp seeds

Ramp seeds

Developing ramp seeds make an interesting "caper" of sorts, not unlike the homemade capers you might make using nasturtium seeds. One of the more tedious aspects of pickling ramp seeds as capers is removing the little ½-inch stem that the seed head is attached to, if you do in fact choose to remove it at all. The stems are only mildly fibrous and are easy to chew, so I leave them on some of the seeds I pickle, as they don't bother me. But I do snip them off, with scissors, of enough seeds to make at least one or two jars that are stem-free should I wish to use the capers for dishes I might make if we have company.

Ramp seed capers, sans stems

Ingredients: 

  • red wine vinegar
  • water, equal in volume to the vinegar
  • salt, ⅓-½ cup for every 2 cups vinegar
  • sugar,  ½-⅔ cup for every 2 cups vinegar
  • bay leaves, 1 per jar

You can see I'm a little iffy on the amounts of salt and sugar. Adjust to your preference, depending on whether you like it saltier or sweeter. 

1) Rinse the seeds in a few changes of cold water, picking out any chaff, bugs or other undesirable elements. Cut of the stems from the heads if you so desire. Chew a few with and without the stems to help you decide. 

2) Bring the pickling brine ingredients to a boil and simmer for a few minutes.  

3) Fill your jars with the seeds and pour the hot brine over them. Keep a bay leaf in each jar. Seal, date and place in the fridge. Or, if you want to preserve them for a longer period of time outside of the refrigerator you may preserve them in a hot water bath as you would any vegetable.

Use ramp seed capers anyway you normally would with an actual caper. I added a handful to my omelet this morning.

Ramp seed capers

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