Sunday, September 23, 2007

Thank you, summer

This is a toast to summer.

Fall began officially this weekend, and we toasted it with a bottle of dandelion wine from 2005. This is the longest I've ever waited to drink a bottle of home made wine. I'm not a patient person (can you say understatement?), so wine making is probably not the best hobby for me. But it tastes so good.

Leda insists that dandelion is a wine that REALLY benefits from age, so I waited. And waited. And this weekend Michael and Tom & Sue Kent, and I toasted the end of summer with a delicious glass of golden sunlight. It was worth waiting for and I wish I had more. But considering that each individual dandelion petal has to be removed from the calyx (calyces make the brew bitter), I'm grateful for even a single bottle. Grateful to myself, that is, since I plucked every last petal.

So now it's fall and that means what? That's right...mushrooms! If summer means berries, then fall means mushrooms. It's been dry-ish so there aren't as many mushrooms as usual, but today we found a very young, very tender Chicken of the Woods.

Gary Lincoff (my mushroom sensei) calls C o' the W a 50 mile an hour mushroom because you can spot it from the car as you speed down the highway. We were driving considerably slower than that this morning, so I had no trouble spotting it from the passenger seat.

Usually the mushroom (a bracket fungus) is bright orange with a yellow underbelly.

The juvenile specimen we found today is pale yellow, just beginning to blush orange.
It's much more moist and softer to the touch than any chicken mushroom I've found before, and I know it's going to be delicious. Dinner tomorrow: C o' the W sauteed in butter with chives. If only I had a little more dandelion wine to go with.

(photo to the left courtesy of Tom Kent, fellow mushroom hunter)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Honey, it's a honey mushroom.

Today I learned a new mushroom: the honey mushroom (Armillaria mellea and A. tabescens). Now that I've seen it, found it, and eaten it, I feel certain I could recognize this mushroom again. That's the great thing about taking a class with a master. Gary Lincoff knows mushrooms, and I've already learned a thing or two, in just a few hours.

He teaches a class called Mushroom Mania at the NYBG and I've wanted to take it for years. This year I rearranged my own teaching schedule so I could take the class and as we walked the grounds this afternoon there were honey mushrooms aplenty!

A. mellea is the ringed honey mushroom; A. tabescens is the ringless honey mushroom. Both are brownish-yellow, gilled, clumpers with white spores. Both grow at the base of trees or in open areas attached to underground roots. Both should be cooked for at least 15 minutes; undercooked honey mushrooms can cause upset stomachs.

I heard a theory on NPR yesterday. The happiest people have lots of small, happy events in their lives. You don't need a huge, million-dollar, once-in-a-lifetime event to be happy. It's better to have a lot of little, everyday pleasures and successes; that's what makes a person happy. And finding a big clump of honey mushrooms at the base of an oak tree in the Bronx, then cooking them up with pasta and garlic...well that makes me pretty darn happy. In a little, everyday, very tasty kind of way.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Summer's Bounty

6 quarts of tomato puree, 2.5 pints of roasted peppers, 3.5 pints roasted tomatillo salsa, and a tray of roasted tomatoes are still in the oven. I'll can them before we leave for the city tonight.

It's a lot of work to preserve all this food, but if not now, when? Now is when the tomatoes are ripe, now is when the peppers are fresh, now is when the tomatillos are falling off the vine. And there's more than a hint of fall in the air, so I know the bounty isn't going to last much longer.

It got down to 39 here (in Shohola) last night. At about 7:30 Michael helped me run most of my houseplants (out on the deck...their summer home) into the garage. I left a few of the tougher plants outdoors. The citrus, Cymbidium orchids, and Gardenia 'Frost Proof' all stayed out. We'll see how frost proof they really are. A few degrees lower and even the tough guys will come indoors. A few more weeks and the summer vegetables will be done.

So now is when you prepare, process, and preserve. Roast jalapenos while the sun shines. And in January when we want spicy salsa on a burger or a jar of pasta sauce for a quick dinner...all this work will be a distant memory. And a very tasty reminder of summer.

Friday, September 14, 2007

What IS that?!

Does this look like it would make a delicious dessert?

These are rhizomes of Asarum canadense, the native American wild ginger. I grow a small clump in my garden as an ornamental, but today Leda and I went foraging with wild ginger as our prime objective. Leda's doing a 250 mile diet thing, so she actually needed the ginger, since what we normally cook with is from a tropical (i.e. more than 250 miles away) plant.

We were respectful as we dug, taking only snippets of rhizomes between plants. Ginger grows from rhizomes that spread under-
ground, linking one plant to the next. Each plant sends roots down from the rhizome at the same spot where the stems grow up. If you snip the rhizome in between plants, leaving a piece intact at the base of the stem, the plant won't suffer.

We soaked and scrubbed the fragrant roots when we got home, then finely chopped a tablespoon to go into pear cobbler. We decided not to add cinnamon (as the recipe suggested) because we wanted to really taste the wild ginger; I wanted to get a full taste of this native spice.

Heavenly. The taste is less sharp than tropical ginger (the plants aren't related) but there's a subtle heat. It's complex and lingers on the tongue, complementing the pears perfectly. Warm, woodsy, fresh.

I'm hooked. I'll chop and dry whatever I don't use this week, then store it dried for the winter, grinding it up as needed. I see a lot of pear cobbler in my future.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Never say never.

Oh my god, I like beans!

You could knock me over with a stick...I'm just that surprised. I hated vegetables as a kid. Since becoming a rabid CSA member 3 years ago I've had to get creative, figuring out how to cook and eat a lot of vegetables I never tried before. The first two years I barely used the beans; I couldn't make them palatable unless I smothered them in caramelized onions and tomatoes. But I've been getting into pickles lately, so when the dill and string beans ripened at the same time I thought I'd try a classic dilly bean recipe.

Like the patient pickler I am, I waited the requisite 4 weeks, letting the brine mellow and all the different elements blend. Today, as I made myself tomato-cheese toast for lunch (it's all tomatoes all the time these days) I opened a jar, not knowing what to expect. What I got was a light, crunchy, pickled bean, the vinegar brine subtly flavored with dill, garlic, and hot pepper. Oh I think I'm in love.

When I made the dilly beans I planned to give them away in my Christmas baskets. Now I'm pretty sure only my mother will be lucky enough to get a jar. The rest are for me and Michael. And for you, if you'd like to make your own:

Delicious Dilly Beans:
(makes about 4 pints)
2 lbs. fresh green or yellow beans
8 heads of dill
8 cloves of garlic, peeled
4 dried, hot red peppers
1/4 cup pickling salt (not regular iodized salt)
2 cups white vinegar
2 cups water

Wash and trim the ends off the beans and cut to 4" lengths (to fit in the pint jars). Place beans upright in sterilized jars, packing them tightly. Leave 1/2" head space. Add 2 dill heads, 1 hot pepper, and 2 cloves of garlic to each jar.

In a saucepan, combine water, vinegar, and salt and bring to a boil. When the salt has dissolved, pour the hot brine over the beans. (Remember to leave that 1/2" head space.) Seal the jars, and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath. Let the pickles mature for 4 weeks before tasting. It's worth the wait.

2 notes:
1) Some recipes call for mustard seeds. I love mustard seed but wouldn't use them here. Their taste is so strong it overwhelms a delicious and delicate pickle.
2) When you're trimming the pickles to fit the jars, save all the end pieces and pickle them, too. They'll be bite-sized bits of spicy deliciousness.

Friday, September 7, 2007

good luck v. talent

One of the best things about being a garden writer is that people send you things for free. This year I was lucky enough to receive a box full of tropical beauties from Brent and Becky's Bulbs (my favorite bulb company and two very nice people) to trial in my zone 5 garden. So many tropical plants make excellent garden annuals, you'd be crazy not to try a few in your non-tropical garden.

Here's what I'm talking about: Did I purposely place this black leaf colocasia next to the purple clematis? I could lie. I could pretend I put that much thought into it and knew from the start that the two would combine wonderfully. Truth is I forgot all about the clematis when I potted up the colocasia bulb and if I had thought about it I probably wouldn't have realized the clematis would still be in bloom when the colocasia got all big and beefy and black. (Don't ask me which clematis this is. It came with the house and all I've done is move it around.)

So this is what you call a happy surprise. The lavender clematis flower brings out a purplish tinge in the black colocasia and the combo almost glows in the fading sun of a late summer afternoon. I celebrate it, but I can't take credit for coming up with the idea. I think this happens more often than most gardeners let on. I know I've occasionally taken credit where credit has not been due, in an effort to make myself look really talented. But since we're all friends here I'll admit all I've done (besides keeping the plants alive) is appreciate a thing of beauty when I see it. And that's something any one can do.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Ever eaten elderberries?

It's another berry photo! (This one courtesy of my sister Sarah because my camera battery ran out; I'm hoping that's a lesson I'll learn just once.)

These elderberries are from Shohola Lake and I have just enough to make Sumac Elderberry Jelly. It's one of my most requested preserves when I'm putting together Christmas baskets.

There are so many things you can do with elderberries I have a hard time deciding. They make an excellent jam, although the seeds bother some people. Not me, especially if you let the jam sit for a few months; that way the seeds soften up. Elderberry pie is tasty and a sure sign that fall approaches. Elderberry wine is a classic but I've never harvested enough to try a batch. (I think you need 6 lbs!)

Every year I consider my options, and every year Sumac Elderberry Jelly wins out. Here's the recipe, which I've modified slightly from Billy Joe Tatum's Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook:

You'll need about 2 cups of each kind of berry. Separately juice your sumac berries and elderberries by covering each in a minimal amount of water (just to float the berries), simmering for about 5-10 minutes, then straining through cheesecloth. You should have at least 3 (and no more than 4) cups of juice, combined. When I'm short, I fill in with whatever interesting liquid I have on hand. Last year, that was homemade blueberry wine but it could just as easily be a little grape juice. Try not to use more than a half cup of this filler.

Combine the juices in a preserving pan, and add 2 broken cinnamon sticks and a teaspoon of cloves. Simmer for 15 minutes. Strain the juice and return to the preserving pan. Add 6 tablespoons cider vinegar, 1 box of powdered pectin and bring the mix to a boil.

When the boil can't be stirred down, add 1 cup sugar for every cup of liquid. (Did you have 3 cups of juice? 4?) Keep stirring, and return the mix to a boil. When the mix begins to reboil, stir for exactly 1 minute, then remove from the heat.

Skim, pour into jelly jars, and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.

It may not be too late for you to harvest your own elderberries, although Leda got hers about a month ago in Brooklyn. It all depends on your climate. Definitely worth getting out there to take a look. And if you're on my Christmas list, put in your request now!