Cultivating Mushrooms

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I am a person filled with obsessions. Are you this kind of person? I’m not always swayed by things, but when they grab me I go along for the ride, hook, line and sinker. A few weeks ago I saw a post on a Facebook group I’m in regarding free shiitake mushroom plugs. I am always alert to the word “free” so of course before I thought about it, I said, “Yes, please!” And thus, my foray into cultivating mushrooms was started. I do love foraging for mushrooms, but wouldn’t it be nice if I could encourage them to grow right in my backyard?

I was talking to a friend the other day who shares this mentality: if I can grow it and I like to eat it, then why not try and grow it in my yard? Some friends enjoy growing only flowers, and I love them for it. Their devotion to visual beauty is laudable. My devotion is primarily culinary, although I do appreciate the beauty in all living things, even poison ivy, so why not have your yard do double duty? Perennial food crops are one of my favorite things: the rhubarb, strawberries and asparagus give me incredible joy. Also, the trees and the herbs that persist regardless of snow, or lack thereof, drought, rust, and disease. They are so incredibly strong. And so delicious!

When I received the mushroom plugs (small wooden plugs filled with a thread of shiitake mycelium) I realized that I might have said yes too quickly. First, I needed to find a recently downed oak log. Have you ever gone around asking your friends and neighbors for a recently downed oak log about 3 or 4 feet long, and 3 to 6 inches in diameter? People kind of look at you funny, even if they are like minded souls. It ends up, no one had a spare log lying around, so my dear and patient husband, who doesn’t share my obsessions, helped me by cutting down a limb off a young red oak that is squeezed on the edge of our road. The limb would probably be cut by the town or utility company soon enough, as it hung over the road, so I felt it was a responsible sacrifice. I duly thanked the tree.

After waiting a few days, while the plugs sat in the fridge, we drilled several million small holes into this limb using a specific drill bit. Then we hammered the plugs into the holes and sealed them with bees wax. What happens now? asked my husband. Oh, we wait for about six months and hope that conditions are right for the mycelium to fruit. He looked at me a little funny. I tried to tell him how it was worth it, that the shiitake mushrooms I buy from the store are $10 a pound! He nodded, knowing my ways.

So, now the log sits in a shady but damp spot, and we’ll see in September or October what happens! If you are interested in the details of growing shiitakes, here are some links to articles I was using as a guideline:

Fungi Perfecti

Mushroom people

There are a ton of great resources out there. You can also join your local mycological group, like the Mid-Hudson Myco Group.

Field Notes: A Cold Spring

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What a whirlwind of a spring! In the beginning it was warm and beckoning, and it seemed as if every living thing was responding exuberantly, in denial of the possible brutality that springtime can sometimes offer. After a Friday with a high of eighty, when the magnolias were resplendently unfurling their dusky pink blossoms, the sabotage relentlessly began, first with dipping temperatures, then with a sprinkle of cold early morning snow. Then came the flagrant insult of six inches of deep wet snow, more than we had gotten all winter long combined. It melted off quickly enough, but the damage to early blossoms was done.

Then there was the cold—temperatures down to 17 degrees! Two nights in a row! After all that brutality, the cold continued to linger, up until even today. Last night hovered around freezing. I’m still covering my seedlings every night. Last year I complained that we never get a long spring, but be careful what you wish for, as they say. This cold spring is hanging around like a rude guest, and has everything in its thrall. Growth has been held in limbo, the leaves on all the trees just hovering before bud break. Fat cottonwood catkins tightly shut, red and green maple buds tentatively stretching, the light chartreuse of the willow leaves just pushing out.

In the face of this, it’s amazing how much survives. Gladly, even! The invasive garlic mustard, of course, not one to cower in the face of freezing temperatures. I have seen this new green growth freeze and thaw several times, and they seem happy as clams, lining the sides of the road, the edges of the forest and swamps, ready to handle anything the weather dishes it. The spicebushes are putting out their tiny pom pom flowers out, the skunk cabbage has been flourishing since February, and ramps, when you find them, elusively flutter their lovely fluid leaves. Bittercress, purple dead nettle, and dandelions proliferate. The wild places understand how spring works, even if we can’t grasp it.

In the yard, the grape hyacinths dot the lawn, staying longer than I have ever seen them in bloom, preserved by the cold. The snow peas I sowed on March 12 are still two or three inches high, weathering it all without ever being covered at night. The rhubarb is strong and crenellated on its sunny hill, so sturdy as it pushes up through the dirt. The strawberries right next door are leafing out, and there are already flowers! All of the seedlings seem to be thriving despite the cold, second leaves showing already on the radishes and spinach. It’s always amazing to see how well living things can do in the face of adversity, never worrying about the past, always present for the moment.

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Buckwheat Walnut Cookies

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We are experiencing a truly long and lovely spring here in the Hudson Valley of New York. In fact, I wonder if we even had a winter at all. After the last two years of brutal cold and snow, this extremely mild winter has us all feeling strangely disconnected, even vaguely apocalyptic. Nonetheless, I am still glad to see the magnolia buds opening, even if this weekend’s predicted cold snap will kill them all. Today will be almost seventy degrees, and the may flies swarming around my head this morning at forty degrees is surely a signal of that. Thankfully, they will all die in the cold snap too. A few years back we had a spring with a mean streak, and as you drove around the magnolia trees were hard to look at with their brown blossoms dead like fall leaves. This is also a tenuous time for fruit trees, for if we lose their blossoms, we lose the fruit too.

Regardless of the looming danger, the garden is alive with new details every day. The strawberries are greening up, the rhubarb is poking through the dirt, and the jostaberries are exuberantly leafing out. The seeds given to me from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden are all popping: snow peas, spinach, carrots, kale, radishes, and lettuces. I direct sowed them all in the second week of March. Spring is such an exhilarating time of year. To have that new and local green creeping back into our diets makes heavier winter fare and baked goods no longer so enticing. I’ve been especially trying not to bake too much, but I have a cookie-and-cake-craving sweet tooth that I can hold back on for only so long.

These cookies helped out by seeming to be virtuous, though I’m not sure it’s actually true. They are the type of cookie that you might take along on a long hike. They are quite hard, do not crumble at all, yet are so satisfying, both as sustenance and for that insatiable sweet tooth. I’ve only made them once, so if you try them out will you tell me what you thought? I added some dark chocolate to half the batch, and that was pretty tasty. Also, other sweet recommendations are welcome!

Buckwheat Walnut Cookies

2 cups buckwheat flour

1 cup walnuts

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup brown rice syrup

1/3 cup maple syrup

1/3 cup coconut oil

Mix the dry ingredients. Mix the wet ingredients–to do this you might want to heat them up so they are all liquid. I refrigerate my brown rice syrup, so it was super thick, and the coconut oil was solid, so this was necessary. Then mix the dry to the wet slowly so that it evenly distributes to a thick mixture. You may need to sprinkle a little warm water to make sure it all pulls together. Roll it all up into a log, seal with plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge for a few hours. It will be quite hard when you remove it from the fridge. Have the oven preheated to 350. Slice discs (thinner will be harder, more cracker-ish, thicker will be still a hard cookie but more shortbread-ish) and put on a greased cookie tray or a tray with a baking liner. Bake for 15 minutes, or until just golden on the edges.

 

Review: Beyond Canning by Autumn Giles

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The other day I received a copy of Beyond Canning by Autumn Giles, who writes about home cooking, gluten-free goodies and preserving (among other things) at the beautiful blog, Autumn Makes and Does. I am thrilled, as I’ve been following her for years, and it’s so nice to see all of her work in an amazing book. Said book has been joining me all over the place, as I like to have something to read wherever I go. Waiting to pick up my kid at school? You won’t find my nose in my phone, I like a book, thank you. And this companion was so chock full of information that I was entertained for hours, like a kid with a box of Legos. Fruits and vegetables, spices and herbs, sugar and vinegar, jars and bubbling ferments? I’m in!

The feel of a book is important to me, and I like the size and feel of this book–very much like a workbook, and I loved the very sturdy paperback construction of it. It travels well and can be trotted into the kitchen, perching neatly on your cookbook stand. (You don’t have one?) I’m a stickler for how cookbooks are organized, and if it isn’t intuitive, I get a little cranky. I love how balanced this book feels, with three main sections providing structure for the techniques explained within. These three sections are sweet preserves, pickling and fermentation, and each one has detailed instructions on how to navigate the various procedures necessary. The photography is beautiful, and the over all feeling of the design is bright and airy, like a sun-soaked kitchen.

You can tell that Giles has poured all the years she has spent fine tuning her obsession for local foods and preserving the bounty into this book. One of the maybe not so obvious bonuses about this book is that a few years back  Giles moved from New York to Arizona, so that both coasts are represented, with a special shout to the southwest. She uses her journalistic chops to really explain all the processes, and I don’t think she has left anything out. For the beginning preserver this kind of obsessive attention to detail is paramount. Yet, the book remains relaxed and friendly in tone, and is never boring or stuffy.

I had a glut of cherries from last year sitting in my freezer, so I decided to make the hot and sour preserved cherries which sounded delicious. My cherries were frozen, hence they deflated a bit, so I turned the preserve into a jam pureeing it a bit, so that the texture was less stewed cherries and more of a spread. I am in love with adding a kick of cayenne to cherries. It’s my new spicy sweet spread, and was just perfect on buckwheat toast with Greek yogurt. I also see it as a spicy sandwich spread, maybe with sliced chicken and melted cheddar cheese.

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There were many recipes that caught my eye, in particular, the radicchio and sunchoke kraut. As soon as I dig up my sunchokes, I will try this out. Who would have thought to marry radicchio and sun chokes? There’s so many surprising combinations, like celery and black pepper shrub, alongside more comfortable ones, like pear cardamom butter. Enough so that this book can keep you interested for a long time. There is also a lot to like about the small batches theory that Giles works with: to can or not to can is a decision totally left up to you.

I know I’ll be keeping this one in the kitchen for the whole summer, in preparation of all the fruits and vegetables that will soon be coming my way! This review is part of a virtual blog tour for Beyond Canning, so don’t just take my word for it. This list is the group of cooks and preservers who are also enjoying and discussing the book. There are also a few giveaways, so make sure you check them all out to see if you can snag a copy of the book, gratis! Otherwise, you can always buy a copy for your favorite preserver here.

3/7: Food in Jars
3/8: Punk Domestics
3/9: CakeWalk
3/10: Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking
3/11: Snowflake Kitchen
3/14: Good. Food. Stories.
3/15: Heartbeet Kitchen
3/16: Brooklyn Supper
3/17: The Briny
3/18: The Preserved Life
3/21: Hitchhiking to Heaven
3/22: Hola Jalapeno
3/23: Cook Like a Champion
3/24:  Local Kitchen

Disclosure: A copy of the book has been furnished for review by the publisher, Voyageur Press.

Kinda Bars

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I’ll bet you like Kind bars, right? I do too. I’ve made them quite a few times, and not only are they easy, but delicious. I haven’t made them in a while, though. The other day I happened to buy a box of “granola” bars and although I knew what I was in for, I was so disappointed. So, out came the brown rice syrup, the nuts and dried fruits.

There are a ton of Kind bar copy cat recipes out there on the internet, so if you are looking for the real deal good recipes abound. These are a little easier or lazier, hence the name. They are close to a Kind bar, but not quite. They took a few minutes to make, no heating of syrups, and stayed in a bar form very nicely. No crumbling, no falling apart. They are a perfect sweet treat–satisfying and truly sweet with no sugar added.

Kinda Bars

Yields 9-12, bars depending on how you cut them

1 cup roasted almonds

½ cup golden raisins

½ cup dates

½ cup coconut

Put all ingredients in the food processor until chopped finely. With the processor still running add one tablespoon of good olive oil, and then two tablespoons of brown rice syrup. Smooth onto an oiled pan, cover it with oiled aluminum foil, then use a rolling pin to smooth it out flat. You can use a large cookie sheet or a small pan, if you want it a uniform shape. Let sit about an hour. Cut into small bars. Keeps very well in a air-tight container.

Port Toddy

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What a strange winter this has been! Just last week I was walking with my son to the bus stop, and we passed by flocks of robins congregating in the thickets that line the little creeks that meander along the road. It’s not terribly early for robins–indeed we are more than halfway to spring–but still it was an odd yet still welcome sign that winter’s grip will soon loosen. Then, this weekend we had the coldest snap yet, with temperatures going down to -12 (no wind chill factor included!). And now, we are to have a balmy high of around almost fifty degrees today! Fifty degree temperature swings are odd indeed.

When the temperatures dip low however, my official drink this winter is the port toddy. It was one of those things I made up, and then googled it to find that I didn’t make it up at all. Of course not! I’m sure people have been drinking it for as long as port has been around. It’s delicious and warming, and it makes one feel luxe. Pour a good glug of port into a glass, add hot water to it (you know, water that you just boiled and then let it sit to stop boiling), a slice or two of citrus, a spoonful of honey (although it’s fine without), and this is crucial: a few fennel seeds. I have no recommendations for a port to buy–I prefer a tawny port, but I use an inexpensive ruby port at your local should be fine for this application.

A Toast to the New Year

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The past month has been a busy one! December was an oddly warm one for the Hudson Valley, and I tried to get out to hike as much as I could. There were forsythia flowers blooming, and cherry blossoms opening, and mushrooms all over. As I write this, winter has finally settled in a little bit more– there is snow outside, and it is cold enough to have the wood stove cranking. The new year is upon us, and I, for one, am dedicated to making it a good one. There were so many heavy moments in the last few months of 2015 that by December, I sank pretty low. But with good food, an open mind, and love in our hearts, I know we can start on a high note.

Back in October, I harvested some berries from the invasive autumn olive. They are lovely red berries that have microscopic dots all over them, giving them a silvery cast (the plant is also called silverberry, due to the silvery underside of their leaves, and perhaps the berries themselves). I have been gathering these lovely little berries for years now, since I found a huge patch where you can never even put a dent in this highly productive species’ output. One bush will produce tons of berries. It’s a picking experience not without pain–there are some sharp thorns.

I must say that I had almost given up on them as a source for food. I don’t like the berries raw–though some do eat them this way–as they are very tannic. My lips just pucker at the mere thought of them. Pressed and added to apples is a suitable way to eat them, as I do like their flavor. I once tried to make something from them on their own, and they separated into a red pulpy mass with a white milky liquid. It wasn’t very pleasant. Also, the large seeds inside the berry have a grain-y smell to them that I don’t care for. When you pass them through a sieve, as for applesauce, it releases this flavor. It sort of ruins things for me, though I wonder how the seeds would be toasted.

This year, once they began to ripen I went to collect a small amount, about a pound. As I picked them, I didn’t even know what I would make. I had been so disappointed in them in the years past that I was only picking them because I do every year. What to make? I wondered. When I am at the end of my rope on deciding what to so with a fruit, I resort to two things: vinegar or liquor. I took the liquor route. And, I tell you, this was the correct route. (Though I will try vinegar next year–maybe that’s a good route, too!)

This mixture–a quart jar filled with the berries, covered with vodka and let to steep for about a month– is my new favorite elixir. At first, I was deflated. When I went to agitate it over the month I noticed it never changed a deep red which I thought it might due to all the lycopene autumn olives contain. But when I tasted it–well, that’s where I was sold. It’s tinged pink, sort of an eerie color, neither here nor there, but all the berry-ish flavor is leeched into the vodka, none of the acrid tannins linger, and all you have is a lovely fruity beverage to indulge in for the final hours of the past year. I will chill it thoroughly, and enjoy it by the fire as the minutes tick to nine o’clock. (Which is when I observe the change, as I cannot stay up until midnight.)

So, I raise my virtual glass of autumn olive cordial, and I wish you a wonderful 2016, filled with fine foods, friends and lots of love!

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Staying Hungry

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