Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Preparing for a Greek feast

Grape leaves in brine.

A scheduled execution gave me my foraging target this week.

I found out last week that a neighbor's house would have to be fumigated for beetles, and a thriving grapevine along the back stairs would likely not survive.  My friend Rebecca and I asked to harvest the leaves, and they had no objections to us picking as many as we wanted - more than 100 in the end.

Why would anyone pick that many grape leaves? To roll up a big batch of dolmades, of course. Dolmades are Greek grape leaf wraps, usually filled with rice and/or beef, and drizzled with Avogolemeno (egg and lemon) sauce. 

My appetite for dolmades had been whetted by the recent Greek festival in the Oakland hills. I'd never been to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral and was surprised at how the bright afternoon light reflecting off white walls and domes combined with the open airiness of the patios gave a convincing Mediterranean feel. 

I have many childhood memories of Greek dishes eaten in midwestern church basements (my favorite is Galaktoboureko, a custard-based dessert wrapped with phyllo dough and drizzled with honey) so we were mostly going there to eat ourselves silly. The beautiful setting was just an unexpected bonus. We hit the food stalls, then waited in line to have our plates filled by little old Greek ladies who had been cooking for days. The meal was topped off by my favorite dessert, of course. I joyously ate myself into a food coma.

Usually to make dolmades, you buy a pack of imported pickled grape leaves, but this was an excellent opportunity to do it ourselves. Rebecca and I tried to pick leaves larger than my palm with fingers spread. With the leaves, bigger is better because rolling tiny dolmas is just annoying. It's too much work for a single mouthful.

We removed the stems, washed the leaves and then rolled them in stacks of eight, the width of a thick cigar. Four rolls fit into each mason jar. 

To prepare the brine, I filled a big pot about a quarter full of water, then added kosher salt.  To test the correct salt level, I tried to float an egg in the pot. It sank. I kept adding more salt until the egg achieved reasonable buoyancy, but at that point got distracted by something else, and when I checked the pot again I sheepishly realized that I had just boiled an egg. 

When the leaves were tightly packed into the mason jars, we poured the brine to about an inch below the rims, and then added several tablespoons of fresh lemon juice to each jar. 

We plan to hold a Greek-themed dolma-rolling party to use the grape leaves in the next few weeks, and I think I may even try my hand at making my first Galaktoboureko for the occasion! 
Here's the recipe I will use to make the Dolmades with Avogolemeno (egg and lemon) sauce. Traditional dolmades are stuffed with rice and ground beef, but I like the addition of the tomato in this vegetarian version.

Vegetarian Dolmades
Adapted from Wandering Chopsticks
  • 40 grape leaves
  • 1 cup cooked rice
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • About 1 or 2 tbsp mint leaves, finely minced
  • About 1 or 2 tbsp dill, minced
  • 1 small onion, diced and sauteed until softened
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper

Avogolemeno (Greek Egg and Lemon) Sauce

  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 to 1 cup water

Cook 1 cup rice. Add 1 diced tomato, about 1 or 2 tbsp finely minced mint leaves, 1 small diced and sauteed onion, 1/2 tsp dried oregano, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp ground black pepper. Mix thoroughly.

Add 1-2 tbsp of the filling to the center of each grape leaf, fold up the bottom of the leaf, fold in the sides and then roll to close. Steam the dolmades 10-15 minutes.

For the Avogolemeno: In a pan on medium-low heat, warm up 1/2 cup water. Beat 1 egg, 1 tbsp flour and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Add the mixture to the warm water and stir. Taste and add more water if the mixture is too tart. The sauce should thicken in about five minutes or so, and be sure to stir every once in a while to make sure it doesn't clump.

More surprises from the humble Nasturtium

Originally published in Oakland Local on April 26, 2011.

It's one of the most ubiquitous and easily grown plants in Bay Area gardens. I often use their orange flowers as zesty and beautiful garnishes in salads and last year, I made a great batch of nasturtium capers from their seed pods.

I didn't think the Nasturtium (genus Tropaeolum) had any more tricks up its sleeve. But I was overlooking another key feature: their leaves. With their slightly peppery taste, it turns out they make a great pesto!

I was so excited to run across this recipe because my basil plants are tiny, so I wasn't anticipating any pesto in my immediate future. This is a great way to kick start (and extend) the pesto season. I added some fried tofu and parmesan, tossed it all with whole wheat pasta and it was delicious.

Nasturtium Leaf Pesto
Adapted from
"Hitchhiking to Heaven"
4 cups Nasturtium leaves, plus flowers if you've got them
1 cup cashews (you can use walnuts or pine nuts - I happened to have cashews in the pantry)
4 large cloves garlic
1 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 large lemon
1/4 to 1/2 tsp salt, to taste
Black pepper
Dashes of hot sauce

Combine everything but the salt, pepper and hot sauce in a Cuisinart. Season to taste. Super easy, 20 minutes tops. I added the hot sauce because my leaves weren't quite peppery enough for me, and I think the vinegar in it was a nice addition. You can freeze the extras in ice cube trays, and the pesto will last forever, already divided into manageable chunks. 

Last chance for Miner's Lettuce

Originally published in Oakland Local on April 12, 2011.
A bouquet of Miner's lettuce.

I've been chasing Miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) all spring. I've harvested it several times on hikes in the last few months, but kept forgetting to take a photo. 

Miner's lettuce is a great way to make your salad feel very fancy, and you'll find it on the menu of expensive restaurants that focus on local foods. But it's actually incredibly common if you know where to look - basically any area of patchy sunlight in the woods. Pastures interspersed along the trail are great places to collect bowls full of it.

Miner's lettuce supposedly got its picturesque name by saving gold miners in the Sierras from malnutrition after a long winter of hard tack and canned beans. Its leaves are a vibrant green and are initially heart shaped, although as they age they encircle the stem and send up cute white flowers from the center, as you can see from the photo.

It hasn't rained for a few weeks now, so I thought my window of opportunity had closed, but then I found out that my neighbor has it in her garden. I had no idea you could do that! You can order its seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, but I recommend you wait until next winter and get it in the ground in very early spring with the rains.

My neighbor was kind enough to let me come over and collect part of our dinner from the back corner of her garden. When you collect them, be careful not to crush the leaves because they're very delicate and are easily damaged. Bring a collecting bag if you're on a hike.

I used them as a bright green base for Salmon Sweet Potato Cakes and suddenly our dinner was miles more elegant than normal, besides being healthy and delicious.  I'll include the recipe for the cakes just for fun, since using Miner's lettuce is so simple, no recipe required.

Salmon and Sweet Potato Cakes
Courtesy of Francie Healey

2 large sweet potatoes with skins on, cubed
2 6-oz cans wild Alaskan salmon (boneless, skinless)
1/2 c. cornmeal
1/2 tsp salt
1 shallot, finely chopped
1/3 c. parsley
1/4 tsp dried rosemary or 1 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1 scallion, chopped
3 tbs ground flaxseed
3 eggs
3 tbs ghee, butter or olive oil
lemon wedges

Boil sweet potatoes until tender, drain and mash. Add drained salmon and remaining ingredients except lemons and oil. Mix well. Shape mixture into palm-sized patties.

Heat butter or oil over medium low heat. Add patties and cook about 3 minutes per side. Flip twice. Serve with lemon wedges. 

Nettles: Worth the trouble?

Young nettle leaves
I am worried about getting sick. 

I went on a trip into the woods last weekend and one by one, everyone else who was along has fallen ill with a nasty and persistent cold. So far I haven't succumbed – but I thought I should look into preventative measures, just to be safe.

I had a kiwi with my morning cereal and squeezed some orange juice in the afternoon, but for the evening I thought leafy greens should be on the menu. What could I forage?

Stinging nettles - Urtica dioica - have been on my radar for a few weeks now. I keep seeing them on hikes, on the edges where forests transition into open sunny pastures or on the margins of parking lots as we return to the car. A friend and I even tried to collect some on a hike near Mt. Tamalpais, but although I'd brought a collecting bag, I'd failed to bring gloves. Sleeves pulled over hands proved to be no match for nettle's formidable sting. 

Why would I bother to collect something with so much potential for pain?

Nettles are extremely nutritious, containing high levels of vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium. They have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties in clinical trials. Their sting is easy to avoid if you follow a few simple rules – plus, they happen to be delicious.

It's the perfect season to collect nettles. Their new growth is the most tasty because the stems can get fibrous as they age. Use gloves and after picking the amount of leaves you'd like to cook, simply apply heat to render the stingers harmless. Nettles are great either blanched or stir fried. I decided to go the soup route, which resulted in a healthy, hearty dinner, which I'm hoping will stave off this cold.   

Simple Potato Nettle Soup
Adapted from Mariquita Farms
  • 2 cups nettle leaves (young shoots)
  • 1 onion
  • 6 small potatoes (skins are fine)
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. parsley
  • 3 cloves garlic or 3 stalks green garlic

Blanch the nettles with one cup of boiling water for about a minute; add onion and garlic and puree. Cut potatoes into small pieces. Simmer pureed mixture with potatoes and remaining water for 45 minutes or until tender. Use a potato masher or immersion blender to mash the potatoes making the soup thick and creamy.

Originally published in Oakland Local on April 2, 2011.

Eating Your Weeds

Originally published in Oakland Local on March 15, 2011.

Sow thistle in  my planter.

I feel guilty about all the weeds in my yard right now.

Encouraged by the rains and periodic bouts of sun, our yard is lush and green and full of flowers, but unfortunately a good amount of that vegetation could be classified as weeds. 

Their flowers bob on thin stems, but I can't see them as pretty.  They are the beady yellow eyes of Oxalis, that persistent clover-like invasive that is everywhere in the Bay Area, which follow me around and dare me to go get a trowel and just try to get them out.  “We'll be back,” they whisper.

Maybe I just gained an edge, though, in my never ending battle of attrition – by eating them.  Recently I discovered that many of the “weeds” in my yard are edible, even my old nemesis, Oxalis.  I haven't yet figured out how to transform its sourness, but I did have positive results with another of my weeds, the sow thistle. 

The sow thistle, Sonchus oleraceus, is often mistaken for the dandelion.  It has arrow shaped leaf tips and a spiky yellow flower, and when you break off pieces, a thick milky sap appears, similar to the dandelion.  However, the leaves spiral off from a thick central stem, often five-sided, with the flowers at the top of the stem.  Both the sow thistle and the dandelion are edible, so mistaking them is not that big a deal.
A closer look.

According to wild food expert John Kallas, author of Edible Wild Plants, the sow thistle is one of the most commonly used wild foods in the Mediterranean, and “is actually higher in omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and manganese than any of our domesticated greens.” It has also been shown to have a high level of antioxidant activity in laboratory tests. 

Four stalks of sow thistle had taken over a few planters across from my office window, and were fat and happy, a deep green. I decided to start there. I cut off the leaves, then harvested the stalks.  In my kitchen, I washed and chopped them, then threw the stems into a pot of boiling water.  After two minutes, I threw in the leaves, and boiled it all for an additional three minutes.  The boiling water removes any bitterness in the plant, which then gets strained off.  I decided to make a sow thistle, mushroom and green onion quiche. 

When we sat down to eat, I asked my husband what he thought was in the quiche.  “Beet greens?  Chard?” he guessed.  To me, it tasted like a cross between chard and spinach, with the stem adding texture without being stringy or crunchy.  There was no bitterness at all.  Sow thistle quiche was pronounced a success.

Perhaps the categories between “bad” plants – weeds – and “good” garden plants don't have to be quite so hard and fast in our minds.  So instead of guilt, maybe I should feel pride when I look out at all my weedy margins, full of antioxidant-rich leafy greens.  I must be a weed farmer.

Sow Thistle & Mushroom Quiche

4 tall stalks of Sow Thistle
6 mushrooms
2 green onions
Cheese (I used Gouda)
3 eggs
1 cup milk or yogurt
Spices to taste – I used oregano, thyme, cayenne and paprika
A pie crust of your choice

Chop the sow thistle leaves and stems separately.  Remove flowers, but buds are fine to include.  Boil stems for 5 minutes, leaves for 3 minutes.  Drain.

Stir fry mushrooms and green onions in olive oil. Add spices, then mix in the sow thistle after heat is off. 

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, then add in the milk to prepare the custard for the quiche.

Prepare pie crust, and grate enough cheese to cover the bottom of the crust.  Place the vegetables over the cheese.  Pour the egg & dairy mixture over the top, then sprinkle with paprika.  Bake in an oven  preheated to 375 for 30 to 40 minutes.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bay Laurel Wreaths

Foraging has been a lonely pursuit lately. My Homesteading Circle hasn't been meeting as regularly because members are traveling or moving houses and when we do get together, we've been packing boxes instead of filling canning jars. 

So this week I found a project that I could do on my own: I made a Bay Laurel wreath for my kitchen. Their leaves can be used as a spice and are similar to the bay leaves you'd buy at the grocery store, except with a much stronger taste. 
The typical culinary bay leaves sold at the store come from the Mediterranean variety of laurel, which has a milder taste. I've been told to reduce the amount used if you're cooking with California Bay Laurel, in a 1:4 or even 1:5 ratio. So for instance, if a recipe calls for two bay leaves, I would use about half of a California Bay Laurel leaf. 

Bay Laurels (Umbellularia californica) are native to this part of California and are extremely common in the area. They have elongated leaves and small white flowers.  Right now the trees are flowering, so you can include the flowers in your wreath as a bonus. They also produce shiny black fruits, which have a thin layer of avocado-like fruit covering a substantial nut, which will definitely be the focus of a future homesteading project. Apparently if you roast the nuts, they taste like a cross between dark chocolate and coffee. Who knew?

I found this particular tree in a friend's yard and asked if I could take a canvas bag of clippings. The entire project took under an hour, from collecting to making the wreath. 

Bay laurel wreath

You will need:
  • Bag of laurel branches
  • Florist's wire (but any wire will do)
  • Kitchen scissors
  • Wire snips
My branches were each about 2 ft long, so I wired several of them together, overlapping their ends, making a much longer, thicker and stronger rope of laurel.  Then I curved it in a circle to make the size wreath I had intended (small enough to hang over my spice rack). I rearranged the leaves to cover up the wire in places and used the scissors to trim any branching stems that were being unruly. I ended up using about 3-4 branches total. The branches are somewhat flexible, but can be brittle if you push them too far, so be careful. 

I'd never actually made a wreath before, and it was way easier than expected. I'm sure if I had a special base, or ribbon or something, maybe it could be fancier, but my priorities are low cost and high function. This will slowly dry on the wall of my kitchen, adding flavor to my pots leaf by leaf.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Spicy Cardamom Preserved Lemons

I am a sucker for cardamom. I know that's what tempted me to try a preserved lemon recipe again.

What are preserved lemons? They're just lemons quartered and packed with salt and a mix of spices, commonly used in Moroccan and Indian cuisines. The pickling softens the skin, which you slice up and add to tagines or bean dishes, after scooping out and discarding the fruit. 

I was really excited about preserved lemons a few years ago - they're easy, beautiful and seemed like such a great way to use the lemon bonanza that comes my way this time of year. I made way too many. The problem was using them.  

I tried to adapt my cooking to incorporate them, but they're such a strong taste that I found I had to structure a whole meal around them, which got a little old. Beautiful jars of preserved lemons languished on my shelf for months, years. I bet there's still some up there.

But this week the lemon tree I share with six other families is going off. There's probably 30 ripe lemons up there. I've already made lemon curd twice this season, and I just wasn't up for marmalade. Pickling suddenly seemed like an appealing option, especially after I found a recipe that incorporated cardamom seeds, cloves, sugar, cayenne and fresh ground pepper along with the salt. I'm willing to give it another go!

Simple Lemon Pickle
Courtesy of Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian

2 pounds organic lemons (preferably not Meyer, because of their thin skins)
juice of 3 lemons
9 tablespoons sea salt
1/2 teaspoon seeds of brown cardamom (I substituted green)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cayenne
16 whole cloves
1 & 1/2 tablespoons sugar (I used turbinado)
1 big jar, or several little ones, washed with hot soapy water and dried completely

Wash lemons thoroughly in hot soapy water, then wipe dry. Leave to dry completely for an hour or so in order to prevent mold.

Grind peppercorns, cardamom seeds and cloves in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Be sure to extract the cardamon seeds from the pods first. In a large bowl, stir the ground spices into the salt, sugar and cayenne.

Slice off the end of each lemon and quarter them. My lemons were large, and I cut many of them into 6 pieces. Remove the seeds. Toss the lemon slices with the spice mixture.

Fill your jar or jars. These can be stored for 7-10 days on a sunny windowsill. Try to shake the jar once a day. After 21-30 days, the skin will be soft and ready to use. When you open and start to use the lemons, move the jar to the refrigerator.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Foraging Report: Candied Orange Peel

Urban foraging can be a lot easier with a toddler along for the ride. You might think a two year old would be more trouble than help in gathering fruit, but that's only if you don't calculate the cuteness factor. When we talk to neighbors to get permission to harvest a tempting fruit tree we've noticed just across a fence, my friend Wendy is the one who knocks on the door, fruit picker in one hand, baby in the other. They are the perfect team, impossible to refuse.

We recently took a walk around our neighborhood pushing the stroller in search of oranges. Now is a great time for most citrus and we knew of two trees that were loaded with fruit. We knocked on the door, and the woman who answered was more than happy to let us harvest from the huge tree in her backyard - it meant less cleanup for her.

"I don't think they're very good, though," she said doubtfully. We'd just sampled one of her oranges that was hanging over the sidewalk, however, so we weren't worried. It was delicious.

We run into this kind of comment frequently - people don't think their fruit is any good. I was puzzled by these statements for a while, until I decided that people must have tasted them out of season and then written them off. It's sad really, how common this seems to be, and it really comes down to a fundamental disconnect that many of us have with the seasonality of the plants around us. We don't know which varieties we have in our yard, when is the ideal time to harvest them and what purpose the fruit was bred for (is the orange meant to be eaten straight, juiced or used in a marmalade?).

We walked around to the backyard, where rotting oranges were strewn all over the patio and winter garden. One of us would use the fruit picker, while the other kept tabs on Corvis, Wendy's toddler. He started throwing the rotten fruit, so I came up with a game where he lobbed the moldy oranges into the chomping mouth of the green bin, to his delighted cries of "Yucky orange!" It worked like a charm and the clean patio probably made the homeowner very happy.

We ended up with bags of oranges that day, destined to be juiced and the peel candied. The stroller is another reason that children are great foraging companions - you're already equipped with a shopping cart to carry home your haul. We stowed the bags in the bottom compartment and headed for home, feeding Corvis orange sections as we walked. 

Candied Orange Peel Recipe
adapted from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook
(which is a fabulous cookbook by the way, from local jam-maker Rachel Saunders)

4 sweet oranges
4 1/2 c. white sugar (I used 2 1/2 cups, which seemed to work fine)
2 cups water

Cut the oranges in half, juice them and then cover the peels with cold water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 10 minutes. Drain and repeat the process one or two times depending on the bitterness of the peel (you're leaching out the bitterness with each water change).  Drain and fill one more time, but this time cook until the halves are tender, for 30-60 minutes. Drain and cool.

When cool enough to handle, use a spoon to scoop out the inside of the orange, leaving a thin layer of white pith attached (see photo). This process is way easier than trying to cut off the pith before the peel is cooked, which I have done before for a different candied orange peel recipe. Then slice the peel into 1/4 inch wide strips. 

Cover the strips in a saucepan with 2 cups water and the sugar, making sure the peel is submerged.  Bring to a boil, then reduce to a soft simmer. Cook without stirring until the edges of the rinds appear somewhat translucent and the liquid becomes a syrup, with thick bubbles around the edges. Turn the heat off and cool the rinds for 30 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the peels to a wire rack. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, carefully separate them and spread them out evenly. The rinds should dry 1-2 days, after which you can toss them in sugar. I ended up using them to make my Homesteading Exchange chocolates, with a sprinkling of dried rose petals on top.

Friday, February 11, 2011

In defense of the homemade

A Homemade Exchange is a simple concept.

Last fall, I sent an email around to folks who might be interested in making something homemade - anything at all - to distribute to everyone else on the list.  Six women signed up for the project, and we set a date to exchange gifts.

Does this sound complicated and time-intensive to you? Even though I had come up with the suggestion, I found it a little overwhelming, and couldn't seem to get started on it. I worried about it, in the back of my mind, for months. What should I make?  Would it be nice enough? How could I carve out time to do it?

In the end, I found an easy recipe for chocolates and made two varieties with items left from recent foraging trips: one with dried candy cap mushrooms and one with candied orange peel and dried rose petals. I was tying the last bow on the packages five minutes before we were scheduled to meet.

Our long-awaited Homemade Exchange happened last week. After a delicious potluck dinner, I received a little pile of treasures including a Dead Sea salt scrub with geranium essential oil, spice mixes from Iraq and Ethiopia, chocolate macaroons, jars of pickled Brussel sprouts and pickled onions and a personalized apron. 

The dirty secret that everyone ended up confessing was that they'd all made their gifts either the night before or the day of the exchange. Like me, everyone else had been a bit overwhelmed by the thought of making gifts for five other people, and had put it off until the last minute. 

What I took from that confession was that we are so much more capable and creative than we realize. Projects take up far more mental energy than they actually do to execute. 

I ended up blown away by everyone's creativity and with a renewed appreciation for having things in my life that are homemade. It felt possible again. We were inspired to try to hold quarterly Homemade Exchanges instead of the annual event we'd pictured.
The exception, of course, was the maker of the personalized aprons - a phenomenally-organized woman, who started her project at least a month before we met. I don't think anyone could have pulled that off in just a few hours!

Bringing homemade back

Want to start your own homemade exchange? After you put the call out to friends and friends-of-friends, be sure to limit the final list to 10 or fewer people so it feels less daunting.

Set a deadline. Ours was roughly Jan. 1, but we pushed the date back a few times to find an evening when we could all get together.

You don't have to have a final party, but I really enjoyed oohing and aahing over everyone's handiwork. A few years ago, I participated in a homemade exchange where we didn't have a potluck, so the gifts trickled in over the course of a few months. I made plum jam, and I remember receiving homemade crackers, coconut lime candies, olives, granola and more. It worked fine that way, but it's so nice to give gifts face-to-face.

It can be done any time of year, but the fact that we pulled it together around the holidays felt like a breath of fresh air, a step away from the commercialized frenzy of the season. If you end up creating your own Homemade Exchange, let me know how it goes!

How did you make those weird chocolates?

I was wondering what I was going to do with all of those dried candy caps in the last Foraging Report, and I ended up being inspired by this blog post at ingredients, inc. which offered a chocolate recipe with endless possibilities for adaptation and variation. The recipe I improvised is a savory and sweet mix of earthy, maple sugar mushroom scents and dark chocolate, which got rave reviews. I received several surprised texts from people over the next week as they broke into their stashes.

I know you're thinking - melting chocolate, I'll need a double boiler, yuck - but what I never knew before was that microwaving the chocolate works just fine (sorry to the purists and anti-microwave folks out there).

Candy Cap Mushroom Chocolate Recipe
  • 1 12 oz. package semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate morsels (I used Ghiradelli)
  • 1 cup dried candy cap mushrooms, plus 1/4 cup to sprinkle on top
  • Package of foil candy cups (which can be hard to find - I got mine at Michaels)

My mushrooms had gotten slightly soft since I'd dehydrated them about a month beforehand. For this recipe, I wanted them to be nice and crisp, so I toasted them first. (This resulted in a texture almost like puffed rice, which was very nice.)

On a baking dish, set out about 25-30 foil baking cups.

Empty the chocolate chips into a glass or ceramic bowl and microwave for 1-2 minutes. Stir to melt any remaining chunks. Obviously the timing will vary depending on the strength of your machine, but you don't want to overdo it.

Pour in the cup of candy cap mushrooms and fold them gently into the chocolate. 

Fill the cups with a little more than a spoonful each of the chocolate-mushroom mixture. Sprinkle the remaining dried mushrooms on top. Refrigerate for at least an hour, and they're ready to eat.

In the next Foraging Report, I'll discuss the main ingredient in my other type of chocolate - candied orange peel, from foraged oranges, of course!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Foraging Report : Candy Cap Mushroom Bonanza

Last week, I pulled the bag of dried mushrooms out of the pantry and opened it, trying to figure out a way to use such a large quantity of dehydrated candy caps.

Their maple-syrup smell escaped immediately and umami richness filled the house for several days afterwards, causing people who walked in the door to ask "What is that amazing smell?" How did I get such a stash of candy caps?

Day tripping

In December, I decided that for my birthday, I wanted to pick mushrooms. Even though I've taken a mushroom growing class (with an ID slideshow) and gone on several foraging trips with experts over the past few years, I didn't feel confident going alone. Mushrooms are no joke.

You should be careful about everything you forage, and never eat anything you can't identify with complete confidence, but mushrooms are trickier than most. Pick what looks like a white button mushroom, but is really the early growth stages of the Destroying Angel, and you can guess what will happen. It is aptly named.
The fruits of our labor

So we went on a guided mushroom foraging expedition, led by Forage SF. We headed a couple of hours up the coast to Salt Point State Park, where picking mushrooms is legal - there you can pick up to five pounds per person per day. 

We all assembled in the parking lot, had a short lecture, including mushroom foraging etiquette: use your knife to cleanly cut the stem at ground level, leaving the base to produce further mushrooms and leave the area as undisturbed as possible.  Scattering bits of broken mushrooms on the ground is bad form. 

We then walked along a road, suddenly seeing mushrooms everywhere. Even covering territory, which had clearly been picked recently, we immediately found many different types. I would eagerly bring a mushroom to the guide, who again and again would say, "That one's not edible - it's not poisonous, just not so tasty," or occasionally, "Yep, that one would kill you." 

I tried to train my eyes to recognize a few distinct varieties. It took a few minutes for them to focus into "mushroom vision," where they zero in on certain shapes and colors half-hidden under leaves and undergrowth. It's like setting up a mental filter where you're only allowing certain types of information to enter your brain, ignoring all of the distractions and focusing intently on the goal. 

The translucent Jellyfoot
I started to get into a rhythm, searching for dark spots under certain types of trees for Black Trumpets (a type of chanterelle) and beginning to recognize the graceful, nut-brown silhouette of the Candy Cap. Somehow, candy caps became something we felt comfortable with, and it was clearly their peak season. We came back with bags of them. 

We also found Hedgehog mushrooms and a strange little Jellyfoot - a translucent mushroom that was the most delicate and beautiful mushroom I've ever seen. We found another chanterelle variety called Yellow Foot and tons of Pig's Ears. Then, as we were walking back to the car, I found one of the sought-after standard Chanterelles, a big one, newly emerging. Victory!

Once we got home, we cooked up a storm, frying the lone true Chanterelle in butter and cooking down the Pig's Ear as a polenta topping. The Chanterelle was, well, very buttery. The Pig's Ear, although it had great meaty texture, was admittedly a bit bland. I don't think we'd bother to collect it again.

Even after preparing a feast for friends, we still had so much  We started to worry about how to preserve it all, and then I remembered my friend's dehydrator - our lifesaver. We sliced and diced, stacked trays that looked like intricate mosaics and the dehydrator whirred into life. So easy!

Interested in learning how to ID mushrooms yourself? It rained just a few days ago, so now is the perfect time to head for the hills to pick some mushrooms.

It's still mushroom season, they're just not as abundant as they are in December and January. Tag along on a foray with the SF Mycological Society - they have a trip scheduled for next weekend - or just join them for one of their monthly mushroom feasts.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Foraging Report: Harvesting Oakland Olives

Wendy and Corvis

You're thinking, “I didn't know we had olive groves in Oakland.”  And we don't – per se.  But the trees are everywhere. Once you can recognize their distinctive gray-green silhouette, it's just a slight shift in awareness to start to see them everywhere you go.  They're commonly used as a landscaping plant in this climate because they're drought-tolerant with a beautiful metallic sheen to their leaves - planted in medians, on hillsides for erosion control, or as a pruned tree in a yard.  Frequently their harvest goes to waste because, if you pick an olive off the tree and taste it, your lips will curl into a small “O” of disgust at its intense bitterness.  It doesn't mean the tree is bad, it just means you have to do a little work to access the nutrient-packed, salty goodness that you expect in an olive.

The Harvest

My homesteading circle had been eyeing a row of olives planted on a wide median in North Oakland all fall.  The four trees were finally gauged ready when about 70% of the olives had turned black.  It was an overcast day in mid-November, with threatening clouds, but we decided to rush to take advantage of the break in the rains to pull out the ladders, bags and buckets.
Betsy spurned ladders and decided to climb

We must have been a curious sight, perched in the trees on a very busy intersection, because again and again we were asked by drivers at the stoplight or pedestrians: “What are you picking?” Olives, but then we have to cure them in salt water.  “I didn't know that's how you made olives!” 

It's one of the things I like best about foraging – the ways it provokes friendly interactions with my neighbors and puts me in the path of people I might not otherwise run across.  People came out of surrounding houses and offered us access to their plum, fig and persimmon trees, telling us their stories and sharing recipes.  It's a way to get people talking again.

Four of us working for two hours gathered 5 gallons of olives. We stopped when we started to feel raindrops, and awkwardly bundled the ladders back across  intersections. No sooner had we gotten them back in the side yard than it started to pour, the kind of rain where you walk out and are immediately soaked to the skin.  But we were stepping into a warm kitchen, ready to process mounds of what felt like pirate's booty, so we couldn't stop smiling.


We had picked both black and green olives, but decided to cure some of the green olives separately as an experiment.   There are lots of ways to cure olives – you can dry cure them, where you rub them with salt and hang them in a bag until they shrivel, but I prefer to brine them. After we washed them  and removed the very damaged olives and stems, we submerged them in a solution of 1 gallon water to 1 cup Kosher salt.  You need a way to keep them submerged, which in previous eras was done by a heavy piece of wood made to fit in the specially shaped, straight-sided olive jar. However, without specialized tools, Wendy came up with the brilliant idea of cutting down yogurt lids (with a hole to release air bubbles) so they'd fit in the necks of the large glass jars we were using and block the olives from rising to the top.
A few less-than-lovely aspects to prepare yourself for – sometimes olives have worms.  And the worms come out as the olives hit the salt water. So the first brine change a week later was hard to get through, but then it's done and doesn't affect the olives in the end.  Also, scum sometimes develops on the surface between brine changes, but I just remove it with a spoon (since the olives are submerged at least an inch below the surface, they're not in contact with the scum).  The scum is normal, but you don't want to let it get out of control.  If you let it develop a thick crust of mold, the olives can end up tasting moldy.  Slight scum: ok.  Thick mold: no go.

Today, months later, I changed the brine again in the 5 tall jars of olives that have been on my kitchen counter since the day we picked them.  Every 1-2 weeks I change the brine. Every time, I nibble on an olive or two to check that the bitterness is leaching out of them little by little.  They are so close!  I am starting to get antsy; curing olives is an exercise in delayed gratification.

Several classes are offered on olive curing in the area including one from Homespun Bikes on February 6th.  Classes are also offered seasonally at UC Botanical Gardens and the Institute of Urban Homesteading.


I've been silent the last few months due to some health issues and the normal holiday craziness.  However, I have been foraging up a storm in the meantime, and can't wait to post on curing olives, picking mushrooms, making candied orange rinds, juicing and dehydrating and so much more.  Plus I have two new articles on urban farming and on a local beekeeper coming out in Edible East Bay, and will be able to post links soon.  It's nice to be back!