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The Fall Summation V: Summer Squash

At this point, in this area, I have given up on standard zucchini. No matter how disease-resistant the variety is touted as being, it succumbs to icky yellow wilts. This summer I tried three vining types which proved totally resistant to bugs and wilts and were alarmingly healthy. The three were trombocino, Thai bottle, and serpiente. My hands-down favorite was the serpiente, which is shown above. It produced three-foot-long “zucchini” all summer until killed by hard frost, with nary a bug or yellowed leaf in sight. I should note, though, that two plants covered an area about 20’x20’ so thickly that nothing else would grow.  Next year I will limit myself to one plant and prune it a bit to control its ambitions.

The trombocino squash  had healthy vines but seemed to have some pollination problems, and many of the young squash withered and dropped off unpollinated. There were plenty of pollinating insects, so I don’t know what the problem was but I don’t think that I will grow it again.

The Thai bottle  squash was a very prolific producer but I did not find this out until the end of the season. Throughout the season I thought that it was not producing more than a few squash, but when the first hard frost killed the leaves back, I found 24 fully mature squash that had been invisible under the thick leaf cover.  Since they are only edible when rather small, I would not grow this one again unless I had a very large trellis or some other arrangement where I could reliably see the small squash.  But if you do have a large trellis and want one plant to cover it in a short period of time, this is your candidate.  But do note that it has to be a big, really strong trellis. This squash is probably capable of covering the side of a building, given a very large trellis and half a chance.

I should note that if you love squash blossoms, as I do, the serpent and bottle squashes have small fragile white flowers, not the great golden trumpets that gladden our hearts.   I might put in one hill of pumpkins just for the gorgeous and delicious blossoms.

When it comes to flavor, all three were the equal of any zucchini I’ve ever eaten. Personally I think that too much is made of flavor nuances in zucchini, and they all taste much alike to me. Same with these vining squashes, all of which have a mild flavor when young and a texture just slightly firmer that zucchini. Get them young, when a thumbnail goes right through the skin with no particular effort. I think that all summer squash are best when cut in pieces of the size you want for the dish you’re making, salted generously, and left for an hour. Excess liquid can then be squeezed away with a dish towel. I just don’t think there’s any substitute for this step, although I do skip it if my decision to cook squash for dinner was impulsive.

The mature fruits that you inevitably find when frost kills the leaves are not usable as squash, but when cut in half with a pruning saw, the chickens relish the insides.

The Fall Summation IV Part 3: Perennial Odds and Ends

So far I’ve written about 16 perennial vegetables that I eat regularly and enjoy, and there are still more to mention. Most are things that I haven’t really gotten to work well yet, but pictured above is a perennial veggie that I eat nearly every day. The Egyptian walking onion has become so intrinsic a part of my cuisine that I don’t take special note of it as a perennial vegetable. It’s just food. I have written elsewhere about how I manage it,  so I won’t repeat most of that material here except to say that I have four patches of it now, north exposure and south exposure, sun and shade.  This is how I ensure that almost every day of the year except January, there are green onions somewhere on the property that I can harvest. A good way to site them is to wait for a spring snow and then note two things: where the snow melts away first, and where it lingers the longest.  This gives you a good indication of your warmest and coolest microclimates, and you want to get some perennial green onions in each so that you have the longest possible season. If you don’t get any snow at all, odds are that you can grow them throughout the year with succession planting.

I stole the photo above because I daydream about lavish piles of fresh bamboo shoots. Three years ago I planted Phyllostachys dulcis, the famously invasive sweetshoot bamboo, a 35’ bamboo with shoots sweet enough to eat raw.  I reasoned nervously that in my desert climate the lack of water would probably keep it from spreading far, and for extra insurance I sited it against the fence of my goat’s pen so that, in a worst-case scenario, I could turn her loose on it.  Three years later, it is a clump of about five scrawny canes 6 feet high at most, and I have eaten exactly one bamboo shoot.  That one shoot was very delicious slivered into a salad, but this is not exactly the course that I anticipated. Maybe it’s my dry climate and alkaline soil, or maybe it’s karma,  but so far this one isn’t budging. I remain hopeful.  Maybe 2018 will be its year to take off.

Rugel’s plantain is a plantain  that I actually paid money to have, because I read that it had better flavor than the common great plantain.  It might taste a little less rank and weedy, but I don’t find it to be a choice eating plant by any means.  Probably the best way to use it is boiled and seasoned baked in the planting chips, but then even the common plantain tastes okay when used that way.  So this one is a nice indestructible plant with limited uses.  I am willing enough to let it keep occupying that space, but if I had it to do over again, I probably would not spend money on a specimen.

Rhubarb is not a plant that I find a lot of uses for, but I must say that I do enjoy harvesting in the tightly packed flower buds. When steamed, they look a lot like cauliflower but taste strikingly like sorrel, with a strong lemony tang.  The cooked buds make a delicious addition to mixed cooked vegetable salads.

Sea kale  is a plant that is still settling in for me.  Each plant makes only six or seven big waxy leaves, and if you harvest more than one, the plant will probably die. Only one of my new plants bloomed this year, and I did not harvest the buds as a “mini broccoli“ because I wanted to smell the flowers, which are said to smell strongly of honey. Mine had very little scent, so I might as well have eaten the buds.  But they were mobbed with bees.   I am told that if you let the plant ripen seeds, that is another thing that will cause it to die. Per the reports of people who have it, it seems determined to die. I did read that the leaves could be harvested in late fall when the plant no longer needs them, but at that point mine were so ratty and bug-holed that I could not imagine eating them.  So in 2018 I will just harvest buds and leave it at that.  I want to love this plant, because Thomas Jefferson loved it, but so far it is not exactly earning its keep around my place.  Still, there are many perennials that it takes me years to learn to use well, so maybe this is one of them.

Chicory comes in dozens of forms. The one that I grow as a perennial is Clio, from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. It resembles a dandelion on steroids until it produces its sky-blue raggedy blooms. I cut down the bloomscape after it blooms, and harvest the newer leaves in fall. Like all bitter greens, it needs strong seasoning, and I especially like it with bacon lardons and red chile.  The flavor is different from dandelion leaves, a little richer and not as bitter, and some people like it who don’t care for dandelion at all. I think that probably you could force it with frost blankets in cold weather, but haven’t tried that yet because I have enough other things to eat in cold weather.

I think that every urban homestead needs to have a wine grape growing somewhere. You will never get enough grapes from one vine to make any wine or vinegar, but wine grapes tend to have nice edible leaves,  while the leaves of Concord grapes and many other grapes of American derivation are full of unchewable undigestible fibers and cannot be considered edible. Grape leaves are endlessly useful. I might actually make stuffed grape leaves once a summer, but once a week in the mid and late spring I grab a handful of grape leaves to throw in mixed greens. They need to be finally slivered because the leaf veins can be tough, and the stems need to be removed altogether, but they have a lovely tang. I also like the small fresh ones chopped into salads.  Young tender grape leaves fried quickly in olive oil make a labor-intensive but really lovely garnish for nearly anything that you might serve in late spring, and I recommend frying them in good olive oil because the rich oil combined with the shatteringly crisp lemony leaf is very delicious.

I have decided to count the Siberian elm samaras that grow all along the nearby path as a perennial since, after all, what could be more perennial than a tree? Elm samaras are mild and have no distinctive flavor of any kind,  but they are available in mind-blowing quantities, and are the first green of spring along with bladder campion and whatever I have managed to force under frost blankets.  They are a useful addition to salads and cooked greens, can be nibbled along the walk as a nice trail snack, and gathered by the bucketful  for my chickens and goat, who have gone through the winter without fresh greens.  So despite their lack of distinction, all of us are happy to see them. Within two weeks of their first appearance as a green mist on the trees, the edges have become papery and tough and the season is over. No problem, I am on to other things at that point.  But later in the growing season when I am cursing the wily and invasive Siberian elm, it helps to remember that it was one of the first fresh things to come to my table.

 

The Fall Summation III: The Firepit

I was happily involved in writing in the multiple parts of my fall summation IV post, when I suddenly realized that I never remembered to publish fall summation III. So here it is.

I have always enjoyed grilling as a wonderfully tasty way to cook meat and vegetables, but late this summer I acquired a firepit in my front yard, and it is fair to say  that it is one of the best small investments we ever made.  The pit itself is just a literal pit, a big hole in the dirt, skillfully lined with bricks by a landscape crew. Then there is a drop-in steel grill with a grate which is easily raised and lowered for precise control, and I wish I could remember where I bought it because it is the best ever.  Most important is the fuel, almost completely hardwood in my case although I start fires with twigs and small branches scrounged off the nearby walking path.

Cooking with wood is a whole different experience than cooking with charcoal, and I had not done it for about 25 years, so it took some time to get back in the swing.  When I want to just fire up the grill and cook something without undue fuss, I resort to my beloved Big Green Egg.  Cooking on the fire pit is more a process and an experience than just getting dinner ready. First, there is building the fire. Then, there is sitting next to it feeding it the right kind and amount of wood and giving it a few pokes at the right time to end up with a wonderful bed of red-hot coals  a couple of hours later.  Then there is cooking the food itself, and this is a hot eye-stinging experience that is somehow more pleasurable and more primal than any charcoal cooking could ever be.  The finale can then go one of two ways: either the coals can be damped with a bucket of water so that you end up with biochar for the garden or a bed of charcoal for the next fire, or more wood can be thrown on the fire and the diners can gather around it contemplatively with wine and marvel at their good fortune to be alive at this particular moment.

Don’t think that this is only an activity for carnivores. Pescatarians will find that wild-caught salmon is perfect for the grill, as long as you’re careful not to overcook.  Any vegetarian or vegan would love firepit cooking, for the rich meaty belt that hardwood smoke lends to vegetables. Eggplant, zucchini, and carrots are all wonderful sliced and grilled. I like to rub them with olive oil mixed with salt and a little chile chipotle. Wild mushrooms are lovely grilled, and store-bought mushrooms approach the savor of wild ones when grilled. Oyster mushrooms are especially suited to grilling.   Potatoes and sweet potatoes are both really good when pre-baked, pressed flat and about half an inch thick with your hand or the bottom of a glass, salted and brushed with olive oil or bacon fat, and grilled  just until the outside gets crisp and browned.  Sweet potatoes are very quick to burn because of the sugar they contain, so they need to be kept on a cooler part of the grill and be brought along more slowly and cautiously.  I understand that some people grill kale leaves very successfully, although so far I have not made that work well. And the more tender leaves of romaine lettuce are really delicious when the heads are grilled in halves.

One of my favorite recent dinners involved large shrimp seasoned and grilled in their shells, served on a bed of grilled romaine lettuce made by cutting heads of romaine in half, drizzling them with my mother’s marinade, and grilling them over very hot coals for 2-3 minutes on each side.  I am in favor of taking the grilled romaine into the kitchen and slicing it crosswise before plating it, for more graceful eating. The ribs of the romaine  leaves become softer, sweeter, and a culinary revelation. I would think that the same thing could be achieved with Chinese cabbage. Another small drizzle of marinade when on the plate adds to the general savor.  In the photo above you see the grilled treatment given to little dark blue Magic Molly potatoes, which I intend to write about in another post.   In general we eat low-carb and avoid foods like potatoes, but the occasional treat does not come amiss. Overall, this is a meal that makes you realize that nothing more miraculous has ever happened in human history than the taming of fire. It made us more civilized and brought wolves in off the tundra to be our companions. We co-evolved with them for the next 40,000 years to the benefit of both parties, and their descendents still seem to enjoy hanging around the firepit.

For more on the entrancing world of wood fired cooking, read anything by Francis Mallman, particularly his first book, Seven Fires.

Fall Summation IV part 2: Further Perennials

In my last post, I started to sum up a few perennial edibles around my yard, and found that there are actually a lot more of them then I realized. So here’s part two.

Bladder campion, Silene vulgaris, is always my first green of spring and my last green of fall. It is better cooked than raw in my opinion, but some leaves in a mixed salad will certainly not hurt anything and have a pleasant substantial texture. I had to buy seed of this one to get it started, and it was a couple of years before it really begin to grow well, but now I have enough to need to weed out some. It has never been a problem weed or gotten out of control under my conditions. It seeds itself around a bit, but not unreasonably.

Curled dock is a common weed that most people could not imagine planting on purpose, but in my area it grows mostly along the irrigation ditches, which are also frequented by dogs. So to have a good clean supply, I do grow some in my weed patch. The slightly lemony greens are very good in mixed greens but rapidly get bitter as the weather warms. Get them early. And then get them again late, because like so many perennials, they produce a smaller but useful second crop of leaves in late fall.  This one does seed it self around like crazy, and every single seed seems to be viable, so do be careful to cut off the flower stalks early unless you want a lot more plants. There is a great deal written about the culinary uses of the seeds. I don’t care for them at all, but you can read about this elsewhere if you are interested.  Some people also use the roots medicinally, and that also could be researched elsewhere.

Bronze fennel is a lovely ornamental as well as a delicious seasoning herb and vegetable. I find the flavor a little more pronounced and anisey than that of green fennel. It’s also prettier. In Samuel Thayer‘s newest book, Incredible Wild Edibles, there is a wonderful chapter on how to use fennel.  My very favorite part is the young shoot, and so far I have not been able to induce my plants to make tender shoots in the fall, but I’m still trying. The leaves are a wonderful seasoning for fish and seafood, and are great chopped and sprinkled lavishly over salads.

Burdock has not been a success for me so far, due to personal taste preferences. Even the youngest spring leaves taste rank and have a rough texture, the root is bland and turns an unpleasant color even when cooked with some lemon juice, and the peeled flower stalk is no more than passable to my palate. I think that the peeled stalk chunks might be tastier when cooked with stronger seasonings or perhaps grilled, and I’ll try that next year. It often happens that an edible perennial hangs around my place for years before I learn to use it in ways that I really like, so I think of burdock as a potential vegetable that I haven’t really learned about yet. I am happy enough to give it some space because my goat is crazy about the leaves and leaf stalks, but be aware that even if you think you are cutting down all the flower stalks, it ingeniously forms some tiny short ones that get past you and scatter seeds everywhere. Bees enjoy the flowers and birds enjoy the seeds, but the price of having it around is eternal vigilance and a fair amount of grunt weeding.

Dandelion is not a common weed in my area, believe it or not, and I had to buy seeds to get it started.  But I wanted it and was happy to persevere until I got some to germinate. The young leaves of dandelion have a fair amount of bitterness and might be an acquired taste, and most people start out by disliking them, then later in their foraging career begin to like them, and ultimately crave them.  I’m at the craving stage. I also enjoy using the flowers, although the bitter green sepals have to be pulled off, which is a bit tedious.  I think that the petals might be useful in fritters and similar preparations, but I haven’t done that yet.  There is always more to learn. I do like the young, tightly closed buds when I can get enough of them to bother cooking. I am not a fan of the root, and this is another plant where I leave the root in place to produce the parts that I like better.  Here in the  high desert I like to grow mine in partial shade because the leaves get more tender, less bitter, and quite a bit bigger. Incidentally, I bought some seeds called French Thick Leaf that were supposed to be very superior, and used some seeds from a northeastern person’s yard, and the plants are all pretty much identical.

Common milkweed is another weed that just does not grow in my area, although I often see it when vacationing further north in Colorado. It took me a few tries to start it from seed, and it needs winter stratification. So far I have only had a few bites each of spring shoots and buds, plus one young pod, on my plate because it’s still getting established. But it has the mild “foody” flavor that I remember, especially good with butter. The vanilla-scented flowers are wildly attractive to bees, and of course this is the food plant of the monarch butterfly. Once established, it doesn’t need too much water, but it needs a fair amount to get started. Be sure that you know how to identify it as Asclepius syraica because there are some thin-leaved toxic milkweeds, and if you are foraging it in the wild I strongly suggest reading Samuel Thayer on how to tell the young shoots from dogsbane,  which resemble them in ways but are very bitter. I hope to have a lot of it around in the future.

Pokeweed was one of my favorite wild foods when I was first getting interested in foraging. It’s a big rank plant, up to six feet high and as much across, and has to be sited accordingly. It also REQUIRES preboiling in a large volume of water, which is then thrown out, before further preparation for eating. It is toxic if not prepared properly. Please consult Samuel Thayer’s Incredible Wild Edibles before trying to eat it. Then you’ll have all the information you need to eat it safely. It doesn’t grow in the Southwest, but I finally got two plants started from seed, and hope to have more in the future. Euell Gibbons wrote about forcing pokeweed shoots in winter, and one day I may try some version of that.

Goji Shoots come up everywhere after you’ve grown goji berries for a few years. They are very tasty sautéed in butter or olive oil. To enjoy them, you have to get new shoots as shown. They should be green all over and tender enough to snap when bent. If they have anything resembling brown bark, or have to be cut, skip them. I cut my plants back in late winter and harvest some shoots in spring, and this year I cut some plants back in late fall and put frost blankets over them to see if I can get some winter shoots. I’ll report back.

Hosta shoots are a new vegetable for me, because when I moved to my current home it was a flat lot covered with tumbleweed and baked into adobe by the blazing sun. It’s only now, eight years later, that my trees are big enough to provide shade for the shade-loving hostas. I chose the biggest ones that I could find because the shoots are bigger. I have only eaten them once because my plants are young and I don’t want to weaken them. They were mild and good steamed and eaten with a soy-ginger sauce. There is nothing especially distinctive about the flavor but nothing objectionable either, and the texture is tender as long as you get them before they unfurl. They would probably be a good addition to salads if sliced, although I haven’t tried that yet. It takes a couple of years before they’re established enough to harvest, which is usual with perennials. Once established, they could be harvested for a couple of weeks in spring, then allowed to form ornamental foliage. When the leaves get ratty in late summer they could be cut back, then a few shoots harvested again as they refurbish themselves. Of note, this is an edible perennial that would pass muster with the strictest homeowners’ association so you can grow it whatever your circumstances.

The Fall Summation IV: Perennials

I am beginning to plan for those future years  when digging in the garden is not such a pleasure. For that matter, there are already days when digging feels less like a hobby, pleasure, and form of worship and more like a chore, and so I am trying to have patches of perennials around that would carry me through a time when I did not feel able to dig.  I am also trying to create deep mulched beds that would make it possible to grow annuals with less work, but more about that in another post.

Some of the perennials that I have experimented with:

Stinging nettles are a real success. They have to be sited in a place where people and animals do not have to be exposed to them and get stung, but once established the only care they need is some water in my desert area, and cutting back in the winter so that the spring greens can be easily harvested. From now on, I will also cut back the withered stalks at the peak of late summer heat, so that when new shoots come up in the fall they can be gathered without much trouble.  They are delicious when cooked, and there is no more nutritious green, so I am even thinking of starting a second patch in another out-of-the-way corner of the yard. I have written about their kitchen uses in a number of past posts,  and I guess all I will say here about their flavor is that it is mild but somehow more intensely green than almost anything else that I’ve tasted.  They have to be handled cautiously and with gloves to avoid stings, but I have read with fascination that some people believe in putting the raw greens into smoothies, and apparently they are edible raw in that form. There are also contests in some places in Europe in which raw nettles are eaten in large quantities. Bizarre, but then, people are. Suit yourself.

Scorzonera  is a favorite of mine for its delicious stalks topped with tightly packed flower buds, and I have also learned to appreciate the leaves as a substantial but mild flavored addition to salads. It produces a small but useful second crop of leaves in late fall.   It tolerates drought  exceptionally well once established. I will be planting a lot more of this one. Be aware that I am talking about Scorzonera hispanica. There are other members of genus Scorzonera that have thready and insubstantial leaves. I don’t find the root to be worth the trouble of digging it up, and I leave it in the ground to make more leaves and stalks year after year with no labor on my part.

Salsify  produces long thin leaves which, in the spring, are tender and reasonably tasty.  The buds are probably the best part of the plant, although they are tiny and you would need a fair sized patch to have enough to be worth eating.  I have planted a new larger patch of it because I read somewhere that the long thin early spring leaves, when blanched for just a minute in boiling water, make a kind of “vegetable spaghetti“ that some people enjoy. I haven’t had a chance to try this yet but it would be a useful addition to my low-carb diet, which is “deficient “ in things to toss with butter and good Parmesan. Salsify  is often grown for the roots, but I find the root fairly bland and not that interesting. I would certainly eat it if I were hungry, though.

Asparagus  is one of my favorite vegetables, and this coming spring I will be planting more of the purple kind, which I find most delicious.  There is just nothing better. If only it were available in the garden for more of the year, I might not bother to grow anything else.

Turkish Rocket  makes delicious buds when harvested at exactly the right phase, with a bitter-nutty flavor very much like broccoli rabe. The season for it is short but pleasurable. I have never found any culinary use for the leaves or older buds.

Sorrel  makes one of my favorite simple sauces when chiffonaded and stewed briefly in butter with a little salt. Salmon was born to be grilled and eaten with sorrel butter. In addition to a healthy large clump of spring leaves, it makes another, even better clump in late fall. Very deserving of garden space. Above, you see the chiffonaded leaves used raw in salmon salad. It takes a surprising amount to make a good flavor impression, so think of sorrel as an ingredient, not a seasoning.

Hops  were planted all along my fences back when I used to brew beer. I don’t brew very  much anymore, but hops shoots are a lovely wild-bitter tasty treat that I look forward to every spring.  I am convinced that fancy preparation is a bad idea. Just rinse them, chop a bunch of them in 1 inch lengths, and fry quickly in olive oil with a generous pinch of salt. Nothing else. Be sure to let them form some browned crispy areas so they can taste their best.

Mulberry  can be kept tightly pruned or coppiced for an excellent harvest of small tender young leaves and shootsat the twig tips.  Don’t try the leathery older leaves, and stems should be tender enough to easily nip off with your thumbnail. It matters which mulberry you get, since some have perfectly good leaves and some are awful. I surreptitiously tasted at the organic nursery where I bought mine, to get leaves that had no unusual toughness or off flavors.  Mulberries have a good amount of resveratrol, but I have no idea about the resveratrol content of the leaves. I would guess, however, that it’s probably in there.  Once you have a mulberry tree you have it forever, and the only problem is keeping it pruned tightly enough that you can reach the leaf tips.  I recently learned from Samuel Thayer‘s newest book that the flowers can also be eaten in salads. I will be trying this next spring.  If you have a yard goat, goats adore mulberry branches above almost anything else, and will happily eat up your prunings. There are some wild food books  that claim that the leaves are hallucinogenic, and others that say the leaves are not hallucinogenic but the water in which they are cooked is. I call nonsense on all of this. Young tender mulberry leaves are one of my favorite greens, and I eat a lot of them, and drink the water that they were cooked in, and nothing remotely interesting has ever happened as a result.  Mulberry leaf tea is also widely used in Asian and given to children and old people, with absolutely no concerns.  I don’t know where this stuff comes from.  I am happy to say that Samuel Thayer, a profound expert on wild foods if ever there was one, talks about culinary  use of the leaves and does not mention this at all. A tightly pruned or coppiced mulberry can be kept in any front yard, since if you keep cutting it back it doesn’t bloom, and after the first few years  will provide a  surprising amount of greens.

Linden  is in all the permaculture books as a tree with edible leaves that can be used in salads or cooked. I have two small Linden trees, and I love the scent when they bloom, but to my taste the leaves are a little bit bland and I prefer good Mulberry leaves.  Still, they make a nice substantial addition to a salad with a good flavorful dressing, and are tenderest and best when gathered just as they emerge from their bracts.

To my immense pleasure, I find that I have more perennial veggies of interest than I thought I had, so I will put the rest in a second post.

 

 

The Fall Summation II: Mushrooms

I always felt that if I could grow mushrooms outdoors among my garden plants,  I would have a fully functioning little ecosystem even here in the desert.  This year, I finally achieved exactly that, and it’s one of the highlights of my gardening year. I should add that anybody who gardens is growing all kinds of soil fungi, but I wanted the edible kind. Three species came through for me. The first was the almond agaricus, shown above.  They are compost lovers, and I buried chunks of the spawn in a bed of compost that I was about to plant squash into. Unfortunately, the squash overran the bed and I only got a few mushrooms from around the edges, but they were very delicious.  This species really does have an intense flavor of almonds, and if you don’t love almonds you probably won’t want this mushroom, but if you do it is a special treat sautéed in butter and served alongside a nutty beefy piece of dry aged meat.

DCF 1.0

Stropharia rugosa-annulata, the wine-cap mushroom,  grows freely in mulched garden paths.  It will grow in pure straw mulch, and that is how I grew it at first, but there is no question that it tastes better if you incorporate some hardwood chips or sawdust in with the straw.  Even when grown in straw alone it tastes as good as a store-bought cremini or better, but once I incorporated some hardwood it became a treat. The picture  above shows how it should ideally look at harvest. The button stage, shown to the right, is tastiest but I can never resist letting one or two get huge. The picture below shows how it is more likely to look in my garden, because for some reason there are tiny little slugs that only seem to chew on this one mushroom species. But no problem, I just brush them off, and once it is washed and sautéed in butter you can’t tell that they were ever there.

Then there are oyster mushrooms, my favorite cultivated mushroom to eat and one of the easiest to grow.  I grow them in the shade in almost whatever receptacle comes to hand, usually laundry baskets lined with clear plastic bags.  For the growing medium I use a mixture of straw and hardwood sawdust, sterilized sufficiently with hydrogen peroxide solution, with a little alfalfa shake included to nourish the mushrooms.  I stick the whole rig under a dense shade tree in late spring, in an area where water from the sprinkler will hit it when I water, but I don’t make any other effort to keep it wet. I like to let oyster mushrooms get big, to the point that they are really meaty.  After cleaning them and cutting away the tough stem area I slice them in quarter inch strips and sauté  them in olive oil with salt until they have some nice brown spots, adding a little chopped garlic toward the end of the cooking.  They are more tender when small, but not nearly as umami and tasty. It’s the difference between veal and beef, and I have never been a fan of veal. Of course, if you want a milder flavor and softer texture, pick them smaller.

Today I finished “planting” several baskets and bags with the blue oyster mushroom, a subspecies of the common oyster mushroom that fruits at a lower temperature.  They are going in an unheated shed, and might fruit during the winter. Remains to be seen if this will work, but anything that prolongs the mushroom season is worth a try.

Oyster mushrooms are determined to grow. Recently I broke up a spent basket and put the mycelium in lumps under straw mulch, and today I found tiny infant oyster mushrooms poking out. I threw a frost blanket over the area and weighted it down with pavers, and maybe I’ll get a late outdoor crop.

Nothing fills me with quite as much satisfaction as seeing one of my mushroom projects cooked and on the table.  I am not sure why this is, except that their biology is so unique and fascinating and they are so essential, in one form or another, to life on earth.  They have some interesting medicinal qualities, but I don’t feel any great need for medicine and prefer to eat them because they are fascinating  and delicious.

I’m enjoying a book called Radical Mycology, which is a compendium of nearly everything that you can imagine about mushrooms, including a heap of medical advice which, in my opinion, should be taken with a very large grain of salt.  But it is addictive reading and will get you through many a long winter evening and give you ideas for new projects.

A Brilliant New Foraging Book, and notes on poisonous plants

Of all the people alive whom I don’t actually know, Samuel Thayer is the one that I would most like to meet for a walk in the woods. His combination of erudition, common sense, and perspective is unique in the field. His two previous foraging books are among the most worn and frayed books on my shelves, and I’m thrilled to add a third to my foraging collection.

One of my favorite things about Thayer’s books is that there is very little repetition from one volume to another. If a plant that was thoroughly explored in one book is brought up in the next book, you can be sure that there is going to be new information that you really want to know.

Incredible Wild Edibles begins with several general-information chapters which are by no means the usual blather and which you should actually read because they concern safety, legality, and sustainability. I also recommend reading the section called The Chicken Feathers Guy, which describes how some people knock the joy right out of foraging and food preparation, for themselves and for others.

Then there are the plants. They include some which are new to me, such  as the creeping bellflower and the purple poppy mallow.  The latter is a common ornamental in my  high desert area, and I am embarrassed that I never knew it was edible. There is a good chapter on bladder campion, a weed that I admire because it’s always the last green I harvest in winter and the first green of spring.  Some of the described plants are common invasives becoming ever more common, such as fennel. How fortunate that it’s delicious. As Thayer says in the context of another invasive plant: “All this hatred directed against a plant just because it grows.”  Several varieties of mulberry are discussed, and Thayer is effortlessly erudite about their confused taxonomy.  He also mentions culinary uses of the mulberry leaves and flowers, without repeating the old wives’ tale that they are hallucinogenic. (Please, other foraging writers, stop just picking up this stuff from each other and repeating it as gospel.) The chapter on pokeweed deserves special discussion. This is the perfect example of a food that was a seasonal staple in many parts of the country, and everyone who ate it knew how to prepare it safely. Now, because it needs a preboil and because writers quake in fear of liability, they make it sound as if the plant will leap out of the ground and stab you given half a chance. Thayer gives a sensible explanation of exactly what you need to do, explains why he refuses to live in constant fear of liability, and leaves it at that. Personally I haven’t tasted poke shoots since I moved to the Southwest almost twenty years ago, but I finally got a couple of plants going last year and am looking forward to a small feast next spring. Preboiled and blanching water discarded, of course.

Now, for some brief comments on poisons.  There’s an element of real hysteria about the dangers of foraging, and strange tales are told, such as that expert Euell Gibbons died of eating a poisonous wild plant. This is nonsense; he had Marfan’s Syndrome and died of an aortic dissection, a common complication of that disease and not preventable in those days. There are some seriously poisonous plants in the world, definitely including some that will kill you. That said, most poisonings are cases of ignorant misidentification or misuse,  and if you are going to forage, you owe it to yourself and others to take your hobby seriously and get all the information you need to identify every wild plant you eat BEYOND A DOUBT and know about any special prep that it needs.  If your hobby was woodworking you would take the trouble to learn to use a saw safely, wouldn’t you? Foraging is less likely to harm you because, after all, your ancestors lived by foraging for millions of years, and you have access to a lot more information than they did. There are so many tasty wild plants that cannot reasonably be mistaken for anything poisonous that you can stick to the basics and still fill your plate much of the year. But Sam Thayer includes clear photos of all potential look-alikes and descriptions of how to tell them apart, so if you have his books, there is really not much excuse for error.