Saturday, October 31, 2009

oh lovely quince, oh golden apple

I don't like to be thwarted.

A few years ago my friend Elspeth mailed me a box of quinces from Santa Fe. I'd been fascinated by the fruit, its weirdness and its mythological significance, for years. Greek mythology says a quince was the golden apple that started the Trojan War when Paris gave it to Aphrodite, the fairest of them all.

I'd never cooked with quinces before; they aren't a common fruit. They're fuzzy and hard, if not as a rock than at least as an uncooked acorn squash. So how to use them? After hours perusing a passel of vintage recipe books, I decided on quince jelly. It's a classic traditional jelly, well served with cheese and biscuits...or so they say.

Dismal failure. I don't know what I did wrong but it didn't jell and never assumed the Florentine red color for which quince jelly is famous. Nor do I remember the flavor as being anything exceptional...only vaguely sweet. Thwarted.

Last weekend I bought a bag of quinces from Cranky Man in NH. (Sarah, what IS the man's NAME?!) Why, because I have a reputation to uphold, dammit, and I was determined to make a successful quince jelly. I reviewed my old recipe books, then checked pages of on-line recipes. I immediately discarded any recipe that included pectin. Quince has more naturally-occurring pectin than most fruits...plenty for making jelly without adding more.

My quandary was the lemon juice. Lemon is often added to jellies/jams; it's the balance of sugar, acidity, and pectin, cooked for the correct amount of time, that makes jelly jell. Get the amounts wrong and over/under cook the mixture and you've got syrup or fruit cheese. Either way the cognoscenti know you've failed because let's face it, no one starts out trying to make syrup or fruit cheese.

But back to the lemons. At least half the recipes called for lemon juice, but at least half also required commercial pectin, and we KNOW that's wrong. Then I found a recipe that explained how lemon juice would inhibit the development of the famous red color. The author said the red color is the result of oxidation, and citric acid impedes that oxidation. THAT made sense to me! (People squirt lemon juice on apple slices to prevent discoloration.) Yet I feared that leaving out the lemon might result in non-jelled jelly...again. I tasted the quince juice, hoping it would be so tart I'd be comfortable leaving out the acid. Nope.

Decision time: I left out the lemon juice, crossed my fingers, and started to stir. Here's where a picture is worth a thousand words:

It's not just that the color is captivating and the clarity worthy of a blue ribbon...the taste is spectacular: half apple, half pear, delicate and not too sweet. I'm sending one jar to Elspeth (whose crop this year was damaged by hail) but I may keep the rest for myself and Michael.

I'm greedy, but I'm not thwarted.

the recipe:
-cut the quinces into 8ths, leaving in the seeds & skins & cores
-put in large pan and add water to cover fruit by about an inch
-simmer 45 minutes, till soft, then mash with potato masher and remove from heat
-allow to cool, then strain overnight through jelly bag; do not squeeze the jelly bag!
-measure quince juice and return to pan
-add 3/4 cup sugar for each cup juice
-bring to a boil, stirring regularly so jelly doesn't stick
-remove from heat after passing your own personal jelling test (two drops into one, wrinkled skin on a freezer plate, candy thermometer, etc.)
-pour into jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

the feast!

And now the moment you've all been waiting for: the menu produced from our excellent fall foraging adventure:

1. watercress salad with roasted chestnuts and local brabander cheese from Fallsdale Farms

I confess, I forgot to photograph this course. Anyone who's eaten with me knows I get excited when anticipating deliciousness. In my excitement I tend to pick up a fork instead of a camera. We're fortunate to have the Barrett's cheeses at our farmers' market, but lucky New Yorkers can find brabander at Saxelby Cheese Mongers in the Essex Street Market. It's strong and sharp and holds its own against the peppery cress.

2. Hen of the Woods soup w/pig jowl bacon bits (from Lucky Penny Farm) & home-made linden flower wine

We sauteed the Hen of the Woods (aka maitake) in stock & butter with garlic & a little thyme, then pulsed a few times in the food processor and added cream, S & P to taste.

3. Chicken of the Woods mushrooms sauteed with onions, cream, and a little sherry

We sauteed the onions in olive oil till they were transparent, then added bite sized bits of chicken of the woods. This mushroom needs to cook for a while to soften, so we added stock and let it simmer for about 25 minutes, then finished with cream, tarragon, & a swirl of sherry.

4. roasted hopniss tubers & boiled evening primrose roots

The hopniss knocked my socks off. Sam Thayer describes the taste as somewhere between peanut and potato and he is right on! Roasted, they have a fluffy, nutty taste that I can't get out of my mind; I want more. The evening primrose roots were less captivating: boiled and served with butter, S & P. The next night I sliced the left overs and fried them with onions in a little olive oil...much tastier, but what isn't better with onions and olive oil?

6. steamed pawpaw/spicebush pudding

I know this isn't a beautiful photo but the dessert knocked my socks off and I'm a dessert connoisseur (not much of a food stylist though). Mark brought the pawpaw with him from KY, where the fruit is more familiar and better appreciated. What an extraordinary taste and texture: creamy, rich, and tropical. Pawpaw combines wonderfully with the peppery sweetness of spicebush and because the pudding is steamed in a covered mold, it's dense and moist and out of this world.

Extra spice bush berries are now in my freezer!

It's hard work being a hunter-gatherer, but the rewards are great.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

fabulous fall foraging

Mark comes back to PA for fall break every October. Weather permitting (and sometimes weather NOT permitting) we forage, with varying degrees of success. This year we rocked the world of wild foods with more good luck and delicious edibles than I dreamed of.

First stop is always the chestnut tree. The past few years have been bleak: four-legged fauna has beaten us to the nuts. But this year we found some still on the tree, not enough for a meal, but plenty for garnish.

We'd had snow the night before, so I figured mushroom season was over, but we decided to check one of our standby trees just because. After all, we were in the 'hood. At the base of the oak was the biggest Chicken of the Woods I've ever found.

We were giddy with excitement, despite the fact that snow had turned to rain. Hoping to continue our lucky streak, we checked a spot where we'd found Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) in the past, although not for the last two years. We picked three large Hens, leaving two behind because we just didn't need anymore. Maybe they'll make someone else as happy as they made us.

After a quick stop for spice bush berries,

and some watercress (we left the newt behind),

we continued on to the evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). Evening primrose is a biennial with a root that's edible in fall of the first year & early spring of the second. By the time the plant sends up a flower stalk (in summer of its second year), the root is tough and stringy. This is a plant that runs rampant in fields and along roadsides. We only harvested a few, since we didn't want to waste it if it turned out not to be delicious.

Our final stop of the day: Shohola Lake. This summer (on a frustratingly unproductive blueberry expedition) we'd seen loads of hopniss (Apios americana). Why doesn't everyone grow this plant? Gorgeous, fragrant flowers and edible tubers...come on people! We arrived at the lake, shovel in hand, and parked by the shore. Technically this was a no parking area, but no one was fishing on this cold, wet day and Mark said he'd never seen a ranger here.

Less than 2 minutes after we located our first clump of hopniss the ranger pulled up, walked over, and asked what we were doing. Mark had dropped the shovel in the tall grass and moved away, to re-direct the ranger's gaze. I explained we were looking for mushrooms and after a brief chat he went back to his vehicle. Didn't leave right away, but eventually. We figured he'd seen our orange vests & hats (it's hunting season, after all) and since we weren't wearing licenses he'd come to check us out.

The soil at the lake could not possibly have been rockier. But we managed to dig up a few decent sized tubers. Again, we didn't get greedy, since we didn't know yet whether the hopniss would be tasty.

3 pm and our bags were full. Lots of cooking to do before the evening meal...but that's another post!

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

a shaggy mane story

I was packing the car to come back into the city when I paused to toss an acorn for the little cat. As I scanned the ground for more nuts, I saw something that made me thrill: a Shaggy Mane! I've always heard about the shaggy mane (Coprinus comatus)...its distinctive form, its unique method of scattering spores, and its rapid descent from primo edible to squishy mess.

There's no mistaking the long, closed-parasol shape of the shaggy mane. Its stem is hollow and 2-6 inches long. Its cap can also be 2-6 inches long and is covered with white scales (hence the shagginess) that come off when rubbed. As the cap opens, its gills turn from white to black with legendary speed; once black, they dissolve into sliminess. Unlike most mushrooms, which drop their spores out of gills or pores, the gills of the shaggy mane deliquesce. What a wonderful word. It means to dissolve or melt away, to become soft or liquid with maturity. A shaggy mane can deliquesce in a single day.

Mushroom experts says to cook this mushroom immediately because it becomes inedible in just a few hours. One of mine was completely closed (maximum deliciousness), but the other had already started to turn. So I postponed my departure for the City (because I have my priorities straight), trimmed the blackening gills, and cooked up the fresh, white parts. Instead of throwing away the deliquescing gills (I can't stop saying that word!) I placed them on the lawn near where I'd found the fungus, in an effort to spread the spores.

This isn't a woodland mushroom. It comes up in lawns, on gravel roads, in hard-packed ground. Shaggy manes are notorious for appearing in vast quantities in cool weather. They're predicting the first frost in Shohola tonight, and I'm hoping for more shaggy manes when I get back next Thursday. The taste and texture are delicate and enticing...after just a few bites, I want more.

P.S. I apologize for not having a photo of advanced deliquescence; perhaps I'll be able to add one next weekend. In the meantime, check out the photos here. He doesn't share my enthusiasm for eating wild fungi, but it's an excellent blog and he takes great photos.

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Friday, October 9, 2009

a rainy day in Shohola

What do you do in Shohola when it's raining and your husband stayed in the city for a convention? Besides throw mushrooms for the little cat?

You make pickled beets.

You bottle blueberry wine.

You move the carrot wine from the primary to the secondary fermentation vessel.

You start a beef, barley, & mushroom stew in the crockpot.

You make drunken jelly from last weekend's vodka soaked fruit.

So what do you do when it's 5 pm and you've done all of the above and you suddenly realize you've been on your feet for hours and your back is killing you?

You clean up the kitchen!


Thursday, October 8, 2009


So I'm downtown, walking to lunch at the Peking Duck House when I pass this:

Incomprehensible. I stopped in my tracks and looked around for whomever left these poor hostas plopped on the ground, roots exposed, drying in the October sun. I saw no one. I called out, "Where's the gardener?" Nothing.

And so I ask you: WTF?

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Friday, October 2, 2009

a woman obsessed!

After being in NC last weekend I had a long list of chores to accomplish at home, and while I've managed to start two batches of wine and dehydrate a passel of apples, I've had to give up the dream of pickling beets and making raspberry peach jam. "Why did I run out of time," you ask? Because I found so many mushrooms!

No surprise that we had plenty of Laccaria ochropurpurea (purple-gilled laccaria), which, when cooked with purple potatoes (and onions and garlic and anchovies and lemon juice) make a delicious and colorful side dish.

The purple-gilled laccaria is a common mushroom in our front yard, and now that the temperature has gotten colder, it has new, blue company. The Blewit (Clytocibe nuda) is considered a truly choice edible mushroom. The first time I try a new mushroom I like to eat it alone to get its signature taste. I forsee Blewits sauteed in a little butter, maybe some shallots, and a splash of sherry, on toast.

Purple-gilled laccaria on the left, blewit on the right. See how different?

Coming back from the Farmers' Market this morning I saw a 50-mile-an-hour mushroom. Ok, maybe a 55-mile-an-hour mushroom.

From the car I thought (hoped, prayed) they were oyster mushrooms, but as soon as I picked one up, I saw they weren't. Unlike oysters, these white mushrooms have thick stems. They also have closely spaced gills which fork just before the rim.

They were growing in a mixed wood, closest to white pine and cherry, on underground wood. The caps are 4-5 inches in diameter and meaty. The most unusual thing I noticed was the large mat of mycelium at the bottom of the stem.

My best guess is Leucopaxillus albissimus. Sadly that isn't edible, but it's fun to try to i.d a new find...sort of like a treasure hunt. Help, anyone?

In the afternoon I spotted another traffic-stopper. Only going 45 mph this time, I saw a good sized clump of honey mushrooms growing at the base of a very dead oak tree on someone's front lawn. Michael circled back so I could ask the home owner for permission to pick. (Of course I was willing to share.) Mail was piled up in front of the door and there was no car in the driveway, but I rang the bell three times, then called out in my most penetrating stage voice, "Is anybody home? Anybody?" No one.

So I took the mushrooms. I think it's probably stealing, but I doubt if it's a misdemeanor. I rationalize that most Americans don't eat mushrooms from their front yard and that the mushrooms might have passed by the time the homowners came back. My good judgement and moral fiber abandon me when confronted with mushroom bounty. And I'm not sorry.

Honeys grow in clumps at the base of dead or dying wood (often oaks). They're meaty mushrooms, and VERY slimy when wet. This makes them well suited to pasta sauces and soups, but I found so many yesterday that I had to dry some for future use.

Don't worry loyal readers. Mushroom season is almost over. I figure I've got another few weeks to search for bear's head tooth, chicken of the woods, maitake...

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