Dandelion Crowns

We’ve tried a lot of things with dandelions.  The leaves are great.  Hopefully everybody knows that by now.  I’ve made syrups with the flowers, but truthfully they don’t have much flavour and are only good for their sunny colour.  The roots are delicious roasted and useful in bitter infusions, but they are such a bitch to harvest I rarely bother.  The flower buds can be pickled, but while they look a good deal like capers they don’t actually have much flavour of their own, and certainly don’t have the distinct mustard-like pop of their Mediterranean look-alikes.

Dandelion crowns might be the tastiest part of the plant.

The crown is where the root transitions to the stalks.  It is only slightly easier to harvest than the root, and probably more difficult to clean, but it delivers a serious flavour payoff.

Fresh dandelion crowns.

 

Pan-roasted, dandelion crowns remind me of rutabaga: soft, savoury, and faintly bitter.

The dish below was entirely conceived and executed by my partner Lisa.  She sautéed the crowns, then added a bit of water to the pan and covered.  Once the crowns were tender she added dandelion greens and cooked until they were wilted but still vibrant green.  She finished the dish with balsamic vinegar.

A dandelion dish: sautéed crowns with wilted greens.

 

Spruce Syrup

Spruce tips: the tender, young needlesLast year I wrote briefly about evergreen syrup, flavoured with the flourescent, tender bundles of needles that appear on spruce trees in spring.  I first came across this preparation in Austria, where the restaurant I was working at used the syrup to flavour a sauce accompanying the roasted leg of a May deer, a fantastic, fantastic example of terroir-driven flavour pairing.  The syrup also has obvious applications in the pastry kitchen.

This week I made the syrup myself for the first time, and I want to relate a few of the details of its preparation.

I’m kicking myself for not getting an exact recipe from Looshaus.  I recall that they brought the syrup and evergreen tips to a simmer, then removed the pot from the stove immediately.  However, a quick internet search of the syrup’s true German name Maiwipferlhönig yielded many suggestions to boil the tips vigorously for half an hour.  This method sounded promising.  I know that in beer-making extracting the flavour from hops flowers requires extensive boiling.  There are a lot of similar flavours between hops and evergreen needles, so perhaps the long boiling method would yeild a more flavourful syrup?

I tried the two methods side by side.  Both pots contained:

  • 2 oz spruce tips
  • 5 oz granulated sugar
  • 10 oz cold water

The first pot was brought to a boil, then poured into a jar and left to stand at room temperature overnight.

The second was boiled vigorously for 30 minutes.  Every 10 minutes I added a bit of water to maintain the liquid level.  After boiling this mixture too was jarred and left on the counter overnight.

Jar One: Quick Simmer

  • appearance: liquid is clear and without sediment; a faint, dull, brown-green tint
  • aroma: medium to strong smell of spruce; clean and minty
  • taste: tastes like it smells – strong, minty evergreen

Jar Two: Long Boil

  • appearance: liquid is cloudy with a faint, dull, brown-green tint
  • aroma: unmistakably evergreen, though slightly muted compared to jar one
  • taste: a mild evergreen taste; resinous, slightly bitter; also gives a slight impression of acidity
Two jars of spruce syrup: one briefly simmered, the other extensively boiled

In hindsight these results make perfect sense.  Now that I reconsider the hops analogy, I believe that the extensive boiling in beer-making is done to extract the bitter flavours of the hops. Lengthy boiling destroys the finer aromas of the hops, so hops that are meant to contribute to the scent of the beer are typically added at the very end.

All in all I vastly prefer the character of the quick simmer method.  I’m also reasonably happy with the strength of the aroma and flavour produced by this ratio of spruce tips to syrup, though I’ll be trying some stronger batches in the near future.

Highbush Cranberries

A tub of highbush cranberries, picked in the Edmonton river valleyMost of the highbush cranberries in the nearby park have lengthened into a distinct oval shape, which means they’re ready for picking.

Often when harvesting or foraging in balmy summer, I find myself looking forward to the colder months ahead.

Much of the past year has been devoted to exploring seasonality beyond ingredients: looking at traditional dishes and meals that mark the season.  I pick highbush cranberries mostly for use in two meals: Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.  (If there’s a little extra that can be enjoyed in November with some game meats, all the better.)  So as I romp through the bush in late summer, I’m actually thinking about fall and winter.

Similarly, when candying cherries in August, I might envision a Christmas cake, or when picking pumpkins in September, a jack-o-lantern.  So it is with seasonal eating, that one eye looks back on the past, and one looks forward to the future.

To separate the cranberries from their stems and pits, I use a food mill with a fine die.  I cook out the sauce with a good pinch of salt, and honey.

After being processed in the canning pot, the jars will wait in the cellar until the turkey is killed.

Ingredients

  • 1 kg highbush cranberries
  • 120 g white sugar
  • cornstarch slurry

Procedure

  1. Pass the cranberries through a food mill to separate the flesh from the seeds.  This process will yield about 600 g of cranberry purée.
  2. Put the cranberry purée into a heavy pot with the sugar.  Bring to a gentle simmer.
  3. Add a small amount of cornstarch to thicken.

Labrador Tea

While on the AMS Great Alberta mushroom foray near Hinton, we came across some large patches of Labrador tea.

Some Labrador tea, sharing a basket with yellow suillus mushrooms

Labrador tea is a little evergreen shrub.  It was once commonly brewed by the natives and used in countless medicinal applications.  It was also part of some of the traditional gruit mixtures of northern Europe.  (For an explanation of gruit, and why it could be important to our provincial brewing identity, please see Alberta Beer: A Thought Experiment.)

The principle flavour is minty evergreen.  I swear when I bruise the fresh leaves I also get a sweet melon aroma, but I haven’t been able to convince others of this, nor have I been able to coax that flavour into solution.  Labrador tea can be used much like young evergreen buds, in tea, syrups, and dry cures for meat.

Candied Lilac

A special report from Button Soup’s Senior Backyard Correspondent, Lisa Zieminek

 

With Allan in Austria, I have been tasked with keeping him informed of what’s happening in our new yard, and documenting developments with copious photographs and notes.

A couple weeks ago, the several lilac trees scattered throughout our yard burst into full bloom, filling the air with sweet perfume.  Last year we learned that these flowers are edible.  The tiny flowers can be added to salads for a splash of color.  They can also be made into beautiful, delicate candies that last long after the blossoms have fallen from the trees and their sweet smell has left the air.  Rather than keeping the memories of spring with mere photographs, I decided to preserve a little piece of the season in candy form, to be enjoyed upon Allan’s return.

Candied Lilac

Ingredients

  • simple syrup (heat 2 parts sugar and 1 part water to 225°F, then cool to room temperature)
  • individual lilac flowers, stems removed
  • ultrafine sugar (sold as “berry sugar”)
  • patience – it’s a tedious job

Using tweezers, dip the lilac flowers in the simple syrup, shake off any excess liquid, then place them onto the ultrafine sugar.  Turn the flowers in the sugar to coat all sides, or sprinkle them with sugar to achieve the same effect.  Let the candied lilac dry overnight, then store in an airtight container.

The candied petals look like delicate crystals – they are a beautiful garnish for cupcakes or ice cream.  They have a crunchy texture and a sweet, floral taste.  (They are flowers, after all…)

-Lisa Zieminek, Sr. Backyard Correspondent

Evergreen Syrup

A jar of evergreen syrup, still full of young needles!A nifty trick I picked up at Looshaus, a hotel and restaurant in Kreuzberg, Lower Austria.

Pick evergreen “buds” (the small bundles of new needles that appear in late spring), simmer them in simple syrup (1:1 water to sugar), and transfer the whole mess into glass jars.  The syrup takes on a fantastic, minty, pine flavour, which the Looshaus chef says gets even better with a few months storage.  Strain the needles out before using the syrup.

Some ideas for usage:

  • sauces for game meats (think: evergreen gastrique)
  • ice cream
  • in sparkling water (beer flavoured with young spruce needles was once common in Canada…) 
  • pork brines

The same process can be used for other common backyard plants, like dandelion and elderberry.

Dandelion Salad

Dandelion and rhubarb from the yard.At left is the first harvest from the yard, largely rhubarb and dandelions.

Describing dandelions as “edible” is misleading. The term suggests that they should only be eaten in survival situations. (Would you ever describe spinach, or cheese, or pork, as merely “edible”?)

In reality, dandelions are a treasured leafy green in several European cuisines. They even have an entry in Larousse. Some excerpts from that article:

  • “the English name is derived from the alternative French name dent-de-lion (literally ‘lion’s tooth’, referring to its serrated leaves)”
  • “Wild dandelion leaves should be picked before the plant has flowered…, when they are small and sweet.” This line confuses me a bit. While our dandelion leaves are definitely better when small and tender, I find that they still have a pronounced (but pleasing) bitterness. I have never tasted a dandelion leaf I would describe as sweet. Perhaps we have a different variety than the Europeans?
  • “In salads, dandelions are traditionally accompanied by diced bacon and garlic-flavoured croutons…, hard-boiled eggs or walnuts.”

I love dandelions because they are one of the first weeds to pop up after the snow melts. The bacon-dandelion salad mentioned in Larousse has become a cherished springtime lunch in my kitchen.

You can also give the roots and flowers a go.  The roots have the same bitterness as the leaves, obviously with an added crunch.  The flowers are very fun to eat.  They have a slight sweetness.

Instead of the classic hard-boiled egg I like to use a soft-poached egg.  When broken, the fatty yolk runs through the leaves and tempers their bitterness.  The dressing is usually made with cider vinegar, a touch of mustard, a touch of bacon fat, and canola oil.

This salad goes well with Weissbier.

Dandelion greens, toasted baguette, and a poached egg

Caragana

The seed pod of a caragana shrubCaragana has a reputation similar to that of poplar trees, verging on “weed” status. The growth has a spiny appearance that most find unattractive. The plants sucker, and produce exploding pods that throw seeds everywhere. Plus they require lots of trimming just to stay presentable.

Caragana is native to places like (go figure…) Siberia, and was brought to the Canadian west in the 1880s.[1] It is extremely drought-resistant and was used extensively in farmhouse shelterbelts. I would guess that it’s the second most common hedge in Edmonton, after cotoneaster, though you are much more likely to see it in older communities like Garneau than, say, Terwilliger. It also grows wild in the Edmonton river valley.

In the early summer, caragana shrubs grow slender, green, bean-like pods. In late summer the pods turn brown, thin-skinned, and brittle. The seeds within develop a fantastic flavour that reminds me of green pea and asparagus, with a profound, sweet, nuttiness. For a short while I eat them raw from the shell. As they dry further, they have to be boiled like other legumes.

After the pods have thoroughly dried, they burst and release the seeds. This bursting is actually quite dramatic. The first time I picked caragana I collected the pods in a large glass jar. Every so often there was a popping sound, and some of the pods would jump out of the container. I kept picking through the jar because I thought a grasshopper had fallen into it. After popping, the two halves of the pod twist around themselves to resemble spiral shank nails. (If you click on the above photo, you can see some twisted pod shells in the top left corner.) Obviously, the pods need to be collected before they burst.

So here’s the catch: the pods contain maybe six seeds that are each about a half centimeter across. Foraging is tedious, to the point that I don’t know if you would realistically collect enough seeds to serve as a legume dish for dinner. They might be better scattered through salads. Depends how persistent you are, I guess.

As I write this, the caragana are throwing the last of their seeds onto the autumn ground. If you hurry, you can have one last taste to contemplate over the winter.

 

Reference
1. Skinner, Hugh, and Williams, Sara. Best Trees and Shrubs for the Prairies. ©2004 Hugh Skinner and Sara Williams. Page 73.

This has been my go-to book for information on local trees and shrubs for a few years now. It has an ornamental bent, and is very conservative on edibility issues. It makes no comment on caragana’s edibility.

Mushrooms (A Lovesong)

Martin Osis leading a mushroom forayMy mind is still reeling from the Labour Day weekend, when Lisa and I attended the Great Alberta Foray in the Bow and Kananaskis valleys. The foray was run by the Alberta Mycological Society.

One month ago, I didn’t know what mushrooms were. Of course I had cooked and eaten them, but I didn’t understand, for instance, their anatomy (why do they have gills?) or their role in my front lawn (why do they grow in rings?).

Here are some mushroom basics I learned that weekend.

1. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi.

I was sure of one fact before attending the foray: mushrooms are fungi. (Mycologists, however, pronounce the word with a soft “g”, which precludes any “fun guy” homophone jokes.) “Mushrooms are fungi” is actually a misleading statement, as the visible, fleshy mushrooms we all know are only a small part of the fungal organism. Beneath the mushroom, in the substrate, which may be soil or a dead tree or an old shoe, is a network of microscopic fibers called hyphae. There can be 2km of hyphae in a square centimeter.[1] These strands collect water and nutrients from the environment. The mushroom is just the fruiting body of the fungus. It pops out of the ground or tree and ejects spores into the air. The gills on familiar grocery-store mushrooms are fertile, spore-producing ridges. However:

2. Not all mushrooms have gills.

These spore-producing layers come in all types. Some mushrooms have teeth instead of gills. The Hericium ramosom is a branched mushroom covered in tiny teeth, making it look like a miniature shrub covered with hoarfrost, or perhaps a piece of white coral. Other mushrooms have rough folds beneath the cap, or a spongy layer full of holes. Some mushrooms don’t have exposed fertile layers at all. The puffball, for example, produces its spores in a golfball-sized sack.

One mushroom we saw looked like a red eyelid wearing black mascara, growing on a dead tree. I have no idea where its spores are produced…

I could go on all day with these clumsy descriptions. What I mean to say is that I was shocked by the diversity of mushrooms that were more or less in plain sight around our camp. The smells and tastes of the mushrooms were as varied and exotic as the appearances. We cooked with a mushroom that smells strongly of seafood. By divine providence, it is also bright orange, and so is called a lobster mushroom.

Not only are mushrooms extremely various:

3. There are mushrooms everywhere.

While I have occasionally noticed mushrooms while walking, I had never purposefully looked for them before this foray. Once I started looking groundward, I saw mushrooms every few paces.

To give you an idea of how common mushrooms are: 90% of all plants have a symbiotic relationship with fungi.[2] Wherever there are plant roots, there are fungal hyphae. The hyphae collect water and mineral nutrients for the plants in return for sweet, sweet glucose. This is called a mycorrhizal relationship (Greek for “mushroom-root,” I think).
The strong relationship between plants and fungi is one of the major obstacles in mushroom cultivation. Of the thousands of species of mushrooms in the world, very few are cultivated. Several of the most prized edible mushrooms, like morels, truffles, chanterelles, and matsutakes, are mycorrhiza. To cultivate truffles, for instance, you essentially need to cultivate an oak forest for them to grow alongside.

How to get into mushrooms.
Most of us are mistrustful of mushrooms. Yes, several are poisonous, and not in boring ways like arsenic or cyanide. For example: mushrooms of the Cortinarius genus contain a toxin that stops the neogenesis of kidney cells. After consumption of the toxin, your kidneys continue to work fine, but as old cells die none are built to replace them. It sounds like something from a CSI episode, but after a few weeks your kidneys suddenly fail.

Don’t let stories like this scare you away from mushrooms. The Leni Schalkwijk Memorial Foray was one of the most interesting culinary and intellectual experiences I’ve had in years. Enjoyment is a simple matter of practicing safe mushrooming.

If you’re interested in learning more about mushrooms, Martin Osis, the president of the Alberta Mycological Society, gives the following advice.

  • Buy a good field guide. Field guides list the characteristics of the most common wild mushrooms, identifiers such as size, colour, how the gills are attached to the stem, what tree the mushroom grows by, and so on. All of these characteristics must match for a positive identification, as mushrooms often have near-identical look-alikes. I think the most interesting technique for identification is spore-printing: leaving gilled-mushrooms gills-down on a white piece of paper for a couple hours and then observing the colour of the spores that collect on the paper. The print forms in the radial shape of the gills, and can range in colour from yellow to purple to brown to white.
  • Pick with experienced foragers. Mushroom identification is certainly a field of study that requires mentorship. Even with a detailed field guide, I was completely stumped by most of the mushrooms I came across (“Is that spore print dark brown or chocolate brown? Do these gills feel waxy?”)
  • Join a mycological society.
  • Take a mushroom course. NAIT has recently joined forces with the Alberta Mycological Society to offer a course on Alberta wild mushrooms.
  • Use scientific names. While common names may seem descriptive, they are much less precise than scientific names. Plus they vary across time and place. For instance, in Alberta the common name “destroying angel” (probably the most bad-ass mushroom name…) refers to Amanita virosa. Down east the handle refers to Amanita bisporegia.
  • Keep field notes with pictorial record. The more information you record from each mushroom picking, the more tools you will have to aid in the identification process.

 

References

1. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. ©2004 Scribner, New York. Page 345.
2.
I read this little factoid on a poster published by the Alberta Mycological Society. Not a very academic citation, I guess, but good enough for my purposes.

Foraging Fruit in and around Edmonton

A few of the many wild edibles that are in season in and around Edmonton in early fall:

Highbush Cranberries

Highbush cranberries are traditionally picked after the first frost, when they are said to be sweetest. I don’t know if the freezing temperature itself does something to sweeten the fruit, or if it’s simply that waiting until the first frost gives the fruit the longest possible time to ripen and sweeten.

Cool, cloudy summers like the one we’ve just had yield berries with more acid and less sugar. Even so, the berries will still be good, so go pick a handful to save for Thanksgiving dinner.

Highbush cranberries in the Edmonton river valley

Chokecherries

Cornucopic clusters of chokecherries hang along the trails of the river valley this time of year. The ease of picking is counteracted by the relatively low yield of usable fruit: there is after all a large pit in each cherry (hence the name..) A food-mill with the right sized plate will separate the flesh from the pits. Chokecherries are extremely astringent, and make a superb fruit wine.

Chokecherries in the Edmonton river valley

Rosehips

The fruit of roses.

A quick digression: I’ve often wondered why rose water hasn’t become an Albertan specialty, given the provincial association, the omnipresence of wild roses, and how easy it is to make.

Rosehips in the Edmonton river valley

Juniper

I’ve pondered for some time whether the low-lying juniper planted in front lawns (Juniperus horizontalis) is edible, like its cousin Juniperus communis. I recently decided to stop wondering and start eating. These berries rarely seem to get as dark blue and fleshy as those sold at the grocery store, but they still taste fantastic, especially with game and sauerkraut.

Fruiting juniper in Edmonton

Fairybells

When Lisa and I started noticing these bright, matted red berries, we thought for sure they were poisonous. Turns out they’re not. The berries and the root of this plant taste uncannily like watermelon.

Fairy bells in the Kananaskis River valley

Mountain Ash (Rowan)

I always assumed that mountain ash berries were inedible. They stay on the trees through the winter, and I figured that if the birds don’t eat them, people probably shouldn’t, either. Then I stumbled over the entry for rowanberry in Larousse: “An orange-red berry the size of a small cherry. It is the fruit of the mountain ash tree, a species of Sorbus. The berries are used when almost overripe to make jam or jelly (good with venison) and, on a small scale, brandy. They have a tart flavour.”

As with the juniper, I worried that Edmonton had a different, inedible species of Sorbus. Then, after a certain botanist assured me they were safe, I started eating them. They’re sour, and kind of taste like rhubarb.

Mountain ash in Edmonton

Buffaloberry

Many trails I recently walked near Hinton were absolutely overgrown with buffaloberry.  The fruit is tart, bitter, and slightly soapy.  There is some good information on-line about the traditional uses of buffaloberry (also known as foamberry, soapberry, and sopolallie).  Most interesting is the practice of beating the berries in a large bowl until a meringue-like foam develops.  This preparation is called Indian ice cream.

A branch full of buffaloberries

Bog Cranberry

I didn’t even know bog cranberries grew in Alberta.  These are the low-lying cranberries that are traditionally maintained and harvested by flooding the field in which they grow.

While we stepped over plenty of cranberry bushes, ripe berries were few and far between.  Those I was able to sample had the classic tart and bitter blend we expect from bog cranberries.

Some of the low-lying bog cranberries we found

 

Walking in the woods is fun.

 A look up through the pines