November Recap Part 1: Foraging is Fun

Jump to Botany and Mycology as Hobbies

First, I must apologize for the hiatus.  November turned into a month full of crazy stressful events that swept me away from much me-time.  So now that all of that has passed, I am going to play a little bit of catch-up.  This is the first of two parts of my recap of November.

This chipmunk lives under my patio. He is hibernating now, but during autumn, when he was still active, the girls would happily gather acorns for him and drop them in the hole that served as the front door to his little home, to help him get ready for winter. He was a challenge to photograph, as he would see me and dart away before I could snap a good shot of him.

The first couple weeks of November were beautiful.  They were warm, the way I think of autumn in the South.  It was perfect for going on long hikes with the kids and exploring nature.  When my husband was home, we would also go fishing.  I liked the long hikes the most, because Starkitten is such a little trooper–she can walk an entire three-mile trail and be happy about it–and Sunfilly is small enough that I can carry her on my shoulders when she gets tired, and her weight, plus the weight of my backpack, meant that I got a lot of strength training and actually lost a jean size during that two-week stint.  (Granted, I gained it back with interest after Thanksgiving.)

A praying mantis on my doorstep.

There were a lot of things we saw and did during those two weeks.  I took advantage of the falling leaves to teach my girls about the seasons and explain about autumn.  I explained that some animals are getting ready to hibernate, trees are losing their leaves and becoming dormant, and birds and butterflies are flying south for warmer weather.  We made a game out of it: spot the flocks of ducks and geese, and which trees were still “awake” and which were “going to sleep.”

Botany and Mycology as Hobbies

There was also the foraging.  Wild walnuts are everywhere.  I’m allergic to walnuts and pecans (it is a tragic allergy, indeed), but my husband and daughters certainly enjoyed finding them and eating them.  And with two handy manuals–Wild Berries & Fruits Field Guide: Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms–I was able to identify quite a few delicious (and, more importantly, safe) berries and mushrooms.  I loved these guides because they are reputable, well-organized, and pocket-sized.  I’d pack them in my backpack for quick reference, in case I saw something that might be a great hiking snack.

My interest in botany (and mycology–the study of mushrooms and fungi–I will use “botany” to refer to both disciplines for the sake of simplicity, even though they are in fact completely separate) began when we first moved to Ohio and I was amazed at the abundance of wild mushrooms and berries not only on our rental property, but all along the local nature trails.  So many of nature’s goodies looked delicious, and yet I was well aware of the dangers of eating heedlessly.  Since I wanted to learn about my new environment, as well as eat of it, I researched well-respected field guides and went with the two that I mentioned, along with a few larger ones to supplement.

So the general rules to follow in foraging are:

  1. Take a notebook and pen with you, and a camera if possible.  You’ll need to record details about the plants that you found for the most accurate identification.  It’s also wise to have several small containers or ziplocs handy to store what you find separately and to prevent them from being crushed.
  2. Never eat what you find right away.  Take it home to identify it fully.  In some instances, you may need a microscope.
  3. Cross-reference.  Cross-reference.  Cross-reference.  You need to be absolutely sure that what you think you’ve found in the forest or on the trail is in fact what it is.  Use more than one book and take advantage of the internet to look at pictures and find detailed descriptions.  In fact, one of the things I love about my two pocket field guides is that they will let you know what plants or mushrooms can be mistaken for each other.  This tells me I need to read up on not just what I think it is I’ve found, but what its look-alikes are.
  4. Don’t over-harvest.  Remember that plants and fungi are food for wild animals, too.  If you gather all the morels in the woods, it can spell starvation for all sorts of critters.  It can also lead to a shortage next year, as the plants you harvested would not have been able to make seeds–or the fungi to make spores–sufficient to reproduce.
  5. Quality of what you find is important.  Once you know that what you are looking at is edible and you want to go back and harvest more, pay attention to the quality.  If it looks like it’s had bugs in it, or looks squishy or overripe, don’t pick it.  You wouldn’t buy a nasty fruit or mushroom at the grocery store–why take it from the forest?  Besides, leaving the unwanteds on the plants helps ensure food for the wild animals and a steady harvest for next year.
  6. When eating a new fruit or mushroom for the first time, sample only a small amount and wait at least 48 hours.  This gives you time to see if there are any allergic reactions or if there are any toxins.  Don’t give any to your kids until you experimented on yourself first (and if there are multiple adults in your household, I’d recommend that you each try it and wait 48 hours, but taking turns).  Also, don’t try more than one new food at a time.  This way, if you do get sick, it will give your doctor a better idea of what to treat and to act quickly.
  7. If you have any questions or concerns, contact your doctor and/or a botany or mycology professor at your local university.  Especially if you have any doubts as to the identity of what you have found, it’s best to defer to the experts.

For fruits specifically:

  1. Observing the leaves is important.  How many are on a stem?  What shape are they?  Do they alternate or are they symmetrically ordered on the branches?  If you can, cut a piece of the branch to take home as well.
  2. The bark may also be important, so take note of it.
  3. Notate whether the plant was growing in the sun, partial sun, or shade.  Did you find it in the woods, or along a stream?  This can be important, too.
  4. Notate how tall it is, or whether it was a vine or tree or shrub.  Some plants are edible in one related form but not the other.
  5. Notate any smell the leaves or fruit emit.
  6. Once you find edible fruits, be sure to rinse them before you eat them.  I usually bring wet washcloths in a ziploc to wipe down the berries I know are edible so we can eat them on the trail.

For mushrooms specifically:

  1. If you’re a novice mushroomer (as I am), avoid gilled mushrooms completely.    When I first moved here, I spoke with a local park ranger about this, and his words of wisdom were repeated in several mushrooming guides I’ve since read.  There are too many fatally toxic gilled mushrooms that too closely resemble the edible ones, so much so that they are easily mistaken.  Until you have lots of mushrooming experience under your belt or are in the company of an experienced mushroomer, it’s safest to just leave them alone.
  2. Notate where the mushroom was found, how much sunlight can reach the mushroom, and how much precipitation fell the day before.  What it was growing on is extremely important.
  3. Notate whether the mushroom has any smell.
  4. When you harvest the mushroom, be careful not to yank it out.  The threadlike roots, called mycelia, are what actually produce more mushrooms.  If you damage the mycelia, you risk that chance that no more mushrooms may grow there anymore.  You wouldn’t chop down an apple tree to get the apples; be equally considerate to mushrooms, too.
  5. While the mushroom is still fresh, press the spore-producing underbelly against a clean sheet of paper or index card.  This will create a spore print and will be integral to mushroom identification.
  6. If you have identified an edible mushroom, never eat it raw.  Aside from the cautions about cooking out possible toxins and germs, I’d like to point out that it may have been hit with the errant droppings or urine from a bird or dog or some other critter.  You’d want to kill those germs.

While this list of considerations may seem long, it’s by no means exhaustive.  I highly recommend that you look up other guides to foraging to make sure you are well-prepared.  Remember, it’s not to be anal about science.  It’s for your own safety.

Also, don’t let it seem daunting.  I found that on my first trip down the nature trail–with two toddlers in tow–gathering and identifying wild berries and mushrooms actually went by pretty smoothly.  I learned a lot about autumn-producing plants in Ohio very quickly.  I also learned to identify poisonous plants such as deadly nightshade very quickly–and to explain to my girls not to just eat any berry they find, but to let me tell them if it is safe.

Here is a sampling of some of the yummy and/or interesting plants that I found during November.  You can click on the image for a better view.

Honeysuckle berries

Honeysuckle (the Lonicera genus) makes berries.  I guess I should have known that, but it never crossed my mind.  I know that you can use the flowers to make tea, but it turns out the berries are inedible for humans.  Birds, however, seem to love them.  They are easy for me to identify, because I’ve seen the vines all over the South (the smell of honeysuckles in May is intoxicating for me).

Dogwood with blue fruit

Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) makes a blue fruit that looks deceptively delicious, but can actually make you sick.  This is also considered an endangered plant in North America according to the USDA, so chancing upon one was pretty exciting.   (If I am wrong in its identification, then it’s the stiff dogwood, which looks fairly similar.)  These dogwoods are important for preventing soil erosion; they grow along stream beds and lakes and their roots hold soil to prevent runoff.

Poison sumac

If you find white berries in Ohio, as a rule of thumb, assume they are poisonous.  This poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is one example.  And this is also an example of why you want that field guide with you.  Just touching any part of this plant can result in skin irritations (like poison ivy) or even more severe allergic reactions–people with sensitive allergies can get sick just from being near the plant.

Rose hips

Roses (Rosa genus) are best known for their beautiful flowers and sweet smell… to the point of being cliché.  Wild roses are a pain in the rear for anyone wanting a manicured garden and take cliché to painful levels, especially if you’ve ever listened to country music (I’ve heard, ad nauseum, the phrase “you can’t time a wild rose” as a metaphor for country women).  A lesser known, and even cooler, fact about roses is that they make a very delicious and beneficial fruit, called rose hips.  They are packed with vitamin C and antioxidants. Wild roses grow all over the place along the Miami-Erie Trail and Buckeye Trail in Ohio, especially along streams and the canals.  The fruits are smaller (because the flowers are smaller), but they are incredibly sweet.  We would just suck out the juices from the fruit, however, because biting into the core was unpleasant: the core has a fuzzy texture and tastes rather bitter.  I’ve read that some people make jellies out of them, and I’ll be curious to try that next year.  As it was, this was our favorite snack along the nature trail.  You can also make a tea out of rose hips, and apparently the nutrients in it help boost your immune system–useful for this time of year.

English: Hen of the woods mushroom

Hen of the Woods - Image via Wikipedia by Gargoyle888

But berries weren’t the only thing I found.  I failed to bring my camera the day I found them, but I found a hen of the woods mushroom (Grifola frondosa) during one of our hikes.  It weighed about four pounds and, after I cleaned it and cut out the wormy parts (a lot of worms and pill bugs like to live in between the folds of the mushroom) and diced it, it filled about three quart-sized freezer bags.  I’ve since found two locations where this mushroom is growing on our property (the largest one weighing about nine pounds), which is cool, because the hen of the woods will keep growing back on the same spot.  And they taste delicious–I’ve read that some rate them as just a few steps down from truffles–and apparently also have some beneficial vitamins and antioxidants.  They only grow on oak stumps or branches and they are easily mistaken for a pile of leaves, which is why I didn’t notice them when we first moved here.  But I’m so thrilled to have found so many of these amazing mushrooms, as they have since been used to jazz up spaghettis and soups and many other dishes.  It even tastes fantastic by itself, just sauteed with butter and onions.

And that reminds me of another nifty pointer I’d like to share about mushrooms: the best way to preserve them is to freeze them.  Cut them up into whatever slices you’d like beforehand, because you cannot thaw them.  When it’s time to cook, you just toss the frozen mushrooms into the pot or pan and cook them.  This preserves the flavor and texture best, and it tastes just like the ones you’d harvested that day.

I couldn't get close enough to inspect it, but it sure looked delicious. Because I couldn't reach it to examine it, I'm not sure if it is edible. But it was too pretty not to share with you. Growing next to it is what appears to be poison sumac.

Next blog post: adventures on the trail, what to pack for hiking, and homemade cranberry sauce.

Butternut Bisque and Crisp Autumns

Jump to Butternut Bisque recipe

One of the really nifty things for a Southerner moving to Ohio during autumn is that, well, it’s autumn.

You see, in the South, “autumn” is when the temperatures actually get below 80˚F for a change, and the leaves turn dead brown.  Not pretty colors like yellow or purple or red–unless you buy one of those fancy Japanese maples and they actually survive the sweltering heat (or just oven heat, depending on whether you live in Texas or Louisiana).  Autumn doesn’t really exist in the South.  It’s fall: fallen dead leaves, fallen deer that fall dead during hunting season, ducks that fall dead during hunting season, pecans that fall, and temperatures that, uhm, fall.

This is what Louisiana looks like in the fall: misty and slightly chilly, with the pin oaks and crepe myrtles stubbornly clinging to their leaves until Thanksgiving. Everything is green because it rains. A lot.

In the South, there really are only two seasons:  hot and extremely dry; and cold and wet.  Sometimes there is snow in the winter.  Sometimes (during El Niño years, I think) in Louisiana and parts of Texas, it rains all the way through the end of June (and sometimes it will rain just on the Fourth of July, just to spite everyone who wanted to play with explosives, as is the American way).

Fall is also about cooking chili and gumbo.  It’s about pecan pies and deer sausage.  And tailgating any kind of football game.  It doesn’t even really feel like fall until mid-October, unless it was a really rainy summer (El Niño again).  And then fall lasts only about a month before it plunges into winter, or what we call “cold, rainy time.”

Fall in the North, I’ve learned, is drastically different.  It’s properly autumn.

Thomas Kinkade

Thomas Kinkade - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Autumn in Ohio is like a postcard autumn, or a Thomas Kinkade painting.  It’s amazing.  The air smells sweet from the leaves turning colors.  And I mean colors.  It’s like Mother Nature took a box of warm colors and dumped it: cornfields and bean fields in fuzzy greenyellowbrowns, trees in redpurpleyelloworanges, red berries everywhere, acorns and buckeyes and walnuts crunching under your feet when you wander through a quiet wooded nature path.

An Ohio lake

See? Ohio looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting.

In the South, it’s state fair time, and everything is deep-fried and oh so delicious.  In Ohio, I discovered farmers markets.  Every weekend, there is some small town hosting one.  And even if you don’t want to brave the freezing cold (it goes down to 40˚F or even in the 30s here!), on any afternoon down a little country road, there will be some farm with a sign advertising homegrown produce.  And the produce you buy there is better–and cheaper–than anything you can find at the grocery store.  And if you know where to look, they may even be organic (or pretty close to it).

One of the first things I did upon moving to Ohio was buy some local honey to cope with the allergies my family suffered from (me the most–as I write this I am recovering from a sinus infection).  I was amazed to learn that some local farmers also keep bees and sell them at local stores.

Squash also make great additions to autumn-themed or Halloween displays. Or footballs for your toddlers.

And then I set out to find the one fruit that is the first thing I think of when I think of fall: squash.  Man, do I love me some squash.  And I terrified my poor husband when he came home from work one day to discover that a quarter of the fridge was suddenly filled with various types of edible squash.

“What are you going to do with all this squash?” he asked me.  “We’re going to get sick of eating baked squash every day.”

“I’ll get creative,” I replied.

And so I did.  Here is one of my alternatives to my go-to of baked squash.  It’s called butternut bisque, and it’s a variation based on a recipe I found in “Simply in Season.”

You’ll need one medium butternut squash.  They are a pain in the rear to peel, so what I did was cut it in half, scoop out the seeds (you can wash the stringy parts off of them, soak them in some salt water, and then toast them in the oven to use as garnish when you’re done with the bisque), and bake it face-down on a cookie sheet for 20 minutes to get the meat soft.  After baking the squash, let it cool and then scoop out the meat.  Whatever you don’t use for this recipe, you can refrigerate (it will last about 3-4 days) or freeze for later.

Butternut Bisque

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 cup of sliced baby carrots
  • 3 cups of vegetable or chicken broth
  • 2 cups of cooked butternut squash
  • 1/2 cup lowfat, plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 can condensed milk
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
Directions
  1. Melt the butter in a large saucepan.  Add the onion and carrots and sauté over medium-low heat for 5 minutes.
  2. Add broth.  Cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients, except for 1 cup of the squash (set it aside).
  4. Then transfer the mixture to a blender in small batches and purée until smooth.  Return the mixture to the saucepan.
  5. Mash up the remaining squash and break apart the pieces as much as possible.  Then add it to the mixture.  (Note:  If you don’t want a chunky soup, you can just throw all the squash in the blender and skip this step.)
  6. Cook over medium heat until hot.
  7. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream and the baked seeds.
The soup is pretty sweet, and so I found that serving it with something sour works well to complement the tastes.  To keep with the autumn foods palette, I served it with my pot roast recipe (which includes vegetables) and a side of purple sauerkraut.  My kids, who are usually quite picky about their soups, destroyed everything.  We had enough left to refrigerate and make as a side with sandwiches for the following lunch.

Butternut bisque, served along with purple sauerkraut and pot roast with veggies

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