Mushroom drought

This drought. It is not just the corn. It is not just the trees.

I have no pictures from my recent reconnaissance at Picnic Point. If I did, you might weep.

I know of a stump right next to the trail which, for the past two years, has overflowed with honey mushrooms and maitakes. Nearby are several trees which have been reliable sources for more maitake than most enthusiasts could even fit in the freezer.

What I saw on this trip was a single bloom of maitake, as brittle as crackers; a couple sparse bunches of honeys, already too old. Hard to imagine that honeys are some of the biggest organisms on the planet, looking at these sorry specimens. Some of them had been taken. Normally I’d pout, but in this case I was glad that someone had gotten something.

I have never seen a fall this dry.

A prickly Lady Luck puts out

Ramps taste better than garlicky onions because they are wild. Other than that, they taste like garlicky onions.

I was getting nowhere in spreadsheet land, so I took off in the Subaru and headed for a ramps patch I know some 45 minutes away. I didn’t want this project to cause me to lose out on all my favorite foraging opportunities this year; I’ve already spent far too much time at work and far too little on morels. Sinatra was singing the Lady Luck song on the way.

Foraging becomes so much more efficient when you know where to go. Luck had nothing to do with this. I made a furtive beeline for the ramps from the parking lot — W. tells me that “beelining” is actually the word used for triangulating bees’ straight lines from flower to hive, when you want to catch a swarm.

I had last been here a year before. I crossed a stream into the lush never never land where the ramps had grown so thick. I’d been greedy but hardly made a dent that time. Here, I saw nothing. I squatted. That is my secret trick for finding things. Peeing forces you to stand in one spot for at least thirty seconds. Voila: a ramp right in front of me.

The ramps were hidden under much bigger growth than the year before. Clearly I was coming later in the season than last time. But they were also very sparse. And many of them had faded yellowing leaves. I don’t know if that’s just their life cycle, or if they had caught something nasty.

I took only the leaves this time, and only a handful. If the ramps were in trouble, I didn’t want to exacerbate the problem. Maybe this just wasn’t their year, in this particular spot.

But then came Lady Luck. Some wouldn’t call it that. As I reached for a ramp hidden under greenery, my hand felt an annoying prickle.

And that is how I finally learned to positively identify nettles. I was 90 percent sure about them, but you never want to screw up with plants. The other lucky bit is there’s a patch a block from my house.

Piling on tonight with a foragers’ quiche: morels, ramps, nettles and Comte cheese (which was on sale, another triumphant foraging discovery). I often hoard my finds, but sometimes it seems important to luxuriate in them.

I am 99 percent sure these are nettles. They stung me and they taste good.

Early spring brings early madness

Is this what it feels like to be a seed when spring comes around? In March a band snapped in my head, like the warmth had altered my brain chemistry.

For me, morel obsession returned.

Green shoots were barely finger-length coming up in the forest when I began pulling over to push myself through brambles. I always feel that if I simply look hard enough, the mushrooms will appear in front of me. And if I get up early enough I will be able to outsmart the mushrooms.

In reality, someone outsmarted me and my lady friends this week. Someone else was earlier still to the tree we refer to as Magic Trees #1 and #2. We were skunked, and dismayed/encouraged/jealous/livid/crazed to see the giant fresh stumps. We found a few, enough for a tart (with caramelized onions, washed down with dandelion wine). I have a backup spot or two. I have to find the time, amid moving and deadlines, to sneak out there.

If I reacted this way to alcohol, I’d be in serious trouble. This physical craving will be satisfied only when I am clutching a giant pillowcase full of fungus. It would be good for me to set my sights on a consolation prize, just in case. Ramps, I tell myself, they are nice enough, and they don’t sneak away when you’re not looking.

Recipe (with reservations): Gozo

Gozo: Made from pounded manioc that's reconsituted like polenta, but so much denser.

The Internet does not yet know all. In part, I’m adding this post because searches for gozo do not produce recipe wisdom. So far, this manioc-flour specialty of the Central African Republic has failed to catch on among cosmopolitan American foodies.

I’m making gozo for an Africa-themed dinner party. It’s been years since I subsisted on this ball of food that is essentially the national starch of CAR. Continue reading

With apologies to Wisconsin, a love note to Alaska

My mental map of Juneau is populated more with berry bushes than actual manmade landmarks: hairy stinkcurrants and blackcurrants, which make the best jam; red currants, not only delicious but about as optimal as foraging gets; salmonberries, juicy but flavorless, a good fallback or pick-me-up on a bike ride; and of course blueberries. Last year W. brought home from Alaska, as a consolation prize for the wage slaves in our household, namely me, a case of blueberry jam.

This year, alas, we were too early for berries. The currant-skeins were all so small and green …

However, we were not too early for Dolly Vardens. Named, I remind you, for a flirty Dickens tart in a polka-dotted dress. Dollies are hardly flirtatious, though. They’ll just eat whatever, and that’s why I love them.

They taste like a delicate cross between trout and salmon. Yet salmon and halibut, the big fatty brutes, get far more attention. Lucky me.

Of course, W. and I are not averse to salmon-fishing. We carried home two of the four we caught, frozen and wrapped in my wedding-party attire. (The wedding being the ostensible occasion we were there; the fishing being the actual reason.)

If W. learned anything as a teenaged deckhand on a charter-fishing boat, he learned how to make fish look big in the photo. I think the blood makes it look like he won a knife-fight with the fish.

Rockfish: Disparaged by salmon fishermen, but it makes the best Thai fish cakes.

We did a lot of nostalgic hunting and foraging, starting the first day: a bike ride to a bolete spot at the base of a glacier, followed by waffles at the Waffle House, followed by dolly-fishing amid the horseflies at Eagle Beach. I have many fond memories of slow, brain-dead waffle-eating after a long day of foraging or hiking out the road. And I love the luxury of how casual fishing is in Juneau: deciding after the day’s main-course activity, to follow up with a little casting … not driving all day to get to a fishing spot; not staking ego or happiness on whether anything is caught, because the fish are so plentiful. In Wisconsin I haven’t encountered any fish bonanzas except winter bluegills, which are hardly worth eating.

Other notable edibles:

• Beach asparagus, a salty vegetable I just learned about. Would make excellent salad garnish.

Foraging for the masses: The Shriners in their tiny cars and everyone else at the 4th of July parade spend most of the parade throwing taffy at people. Sartorial note: Shriners in Alaska wear fancy rubber boots from Fred Meyer.

• A Maryland-style crab boil, with newspapers festively lining the table — Maryland-style except for the size of the crabs — something I’d been yearning for since I left Alaska. Incidentally, PSP has recently been found in Southeast Alaska crab guts. (You never ate the guts anyway, but do be careful.) I am concerned that the anthropogenic rise in sea temperatures will bode ill for my love affair with Dungies and other Alaska shellfish. If the oysters start getting spawny in Kake, that’s when I’ll grow a beard, slash my clothes and start wandering the streets with signs about Impending Doom.

The actual reason we went to Alaska: A wedding in Excursion Inlet, two hours' boat ride from Juneau. This picture marks the first time I have mixed high heels with seaweed.

Wisconsin has its charms, such as the four gallon bags of cherries I put in the freezer last week. But I left my heart somewhere in Gastineau Channel — to feed, naturally, the Dolly Vardens I hope to catch on my return.

Mushrooms on layover

W. and I congratulated ourselves for escaping the Anchorage airport yesterday after 13 hours or so of travel. We took a cab to Kincaid Park. A place that suggested it might have morels, based on the presence of this:


That could have happened in Madison. This probably couldn’t:


Those smudges are bear pawprints. A fellow forager: the hummingbear!

Foraging begins—Mushrooms still sleepy—A happy consolation

People go crazy over these, but they taste pretty much like garlicky green onions you've had before but with a tender leaf. The reason we go crazy is because wild things are always better. It's not rational, but there you have it.

Week #2 of the 2011 morel hunt: no morels. Last weekend it seemed like it was still pretty much winter out there. But today we walked among shoots and sensed we were just a few days too early. The obsession is growing. But stay out long enough, and Mother Nature will always provide something. Sometimes it’s something unpleasant, like ticks. (Who knows, I may have those, too.) Today it was a lovely consolation prize: ramps. Continue reading

Springtime is cheesytime

Curd in cloth; and unmolded two days later.

Incidentally, the making of stinky cheese is one of my top post-reporting-burnout fantasy careers. I also want to own goats, but goats whose poop is someone else’s responsibility, if we’re going to flesh this fantasy out. But for now I am a long way from Master Cheesemaker, and just two weeks ago embarked on my first long-term cheese project.
Continue reading

Wild turkey, with a small ‘t’

Four pounds of it, snagged by hunter Karl, brined and waiting for the smoker.


The turkey’s purpose is to inspire a group of non-turkey hunters before their turkey hunt this weekend. Just before turkey season begins for everyone else, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a Learn to Hunt program, organized by Karl. I’ll be hunting, even though I lost my glasses this week. As will W., and a few other wild-food-friendly friends. It’s a natural progression from hunting mushrooms to hunting moving prey, a leap that requires substantially more hand-eye coordination.

I am petrified of drying out the meat; Ruhlman has advised keeping the temperature as low as possible. Also, we may have to engage in some Poor Housewife Witchery to stretch it out over the expected crowd. Perhaps something involving the other Wild Turkey.

A sausage cure for the winter blues

Tastes like salami, but more so than usual: smoother, richer, funkier. The extra pork fat stayed nicely separate from the meat, which validated my OCD efforts to keep it cold during the grinding process.

First, a note of thanks to my parents. When you sent W. that bulky weather station, the one that displays the humidity and temperature both outside and inside, plus the barometric forecast and the atomic time, we scoffed. We can get the weather outside by going outside. We get the weather inside by going inside.

However, it was indispensable in creating the perfect sausage-curing climate. Perhaps if the manufacturers had mentioned that use on the packaging, I would have been less skeptical. Continue reading