Pheasant Back Mushrooms

Such a beautiful mushroom!

On warm, early-spring days when I’m out hunting for Morels, most often I’m likely to come across Polyporus squamosus, aka Pheasant Back, aka Dryad’s Saddle Mushrooms. As much as I love Morels, I’m never sad to find these instead.

Pheasant Backs grow directly on dead hardwood, particularly Elms, and they love super wet areas. As you can see in the photo, the topside of this shelf mushroom has a feather-like pattern to it. The bottom has small pores rather than gills. It is thick and meaty, and dry to the touch, not slimy or wet-feeling. The smell is really interesting – not mushroom-y at all, more like cucumber or watermelon rind!

Underside of Pheasant Back mushroom.

These mushrooms can get quite large, and contrary to advice I’ve seen from others, smaller isn’t always better. For the best eating experience, you want this mushroom to be tender, and while it does tend to get tough as it gets older, size isn’t always the best indicator of tenderness. Rather, take a knife and touch it to the edge of the mushroom. Put just a small amount of pressure on the knife to push it into the mushroom. As soon as you feel resistance, stop there and cut just that tender part around the edge. For some mushrooms, it’ll be the whole thing up to the little nub that was connected to the wood. For others, it’ll be just a half-inch or so around the edge. Those tender bits are absolutely delicious when fried up in some butter. Make ’em crispy and salty to resemble bacon bits if you’d like. 🙂

Now don’t throw away the tougher part – use that to make soup stock! Either make the stock and freeze it…..or….cut up that tougher part, put it in the dehydrator, and save it to make stock later.

Another thing I love about this mushroom is that it’s not just around for one season – I’ll find it throughout most of the growing season, though it’s most abundant in Spring and Fall.

I hope you find whatever you are hunting for this year. And I hope you find and try some Pheasant Backs, too. 🙂

Dandelion

I swear they are smiling!

What if you had the world’s most nutritious food growing in your backyard? What if you didn’t even plant it there, it just grew by itself with no tilling, tending or watering? What if you could harvest as much of it as you wanted, and it would just keep coming back? And…..What if it actually tasted good?!

Yep, that’s all true about Dandelion. Did you know that Dandelion was brought over with European settlers as a food source?? My how things have changed, lol!

Easy to recognize, easy to harvest and the entire plant is edible. What a good friend this sunny little flower is!!

If I could only have one Wild Food forever more, it would be this one. It never gets boring, it is so versatile:

Roots: use fresh for medicinal tinctures to help with digestion. Chop fresh roots and put into a stir-fry or into soup. Dried and roasted roots make a delicious tea, it tastes deeply nutty with a sort-of-chocolatey undertone.

Leaves: Use fresh to toss in salad, soup and hot dishes. Yes, they are bitter, so chop them small and mix well with other foods. Bitter foods are great for our digestion! Make pesto. Make tea. Dry them to use throughout the winter in soups and teas.

Flower buds: Saute in butter and eat it just like that. So yummy! You can pickle or ferment these, too, to use like capers. You’ll want the smallest, tightest buds for that.

Flower stems can be cooked and used like noodles, topped with your favorite sauce, or just eat with salt and butter. (Salt and butter are like magic, aren’t they??? They make everything taste good!)

The flowers themselves are so versatile – my favorite way to eat them is as a fritter: dipped in batter, fried and eaten with a bit of maple syrup. Or salt and butter. You could also chop them up fresh and toss in a salad or soup. And of course, let’s not forget Dandelion Wine.

The whole plant can be steeped in vinegar to use in a healthful delicious salad dressing, or any other way would use regular vinegar.

I haven’t personally eaten dandelion fluff before, but I’d bet that the fluff would just kind of disappear when mixed into a salad or soup – then you’d be left with that tiny little seed, bursting with nutrients.

Let me leave you with a couple of links with recipes and more information. Happy Spring, my friends. 🙂

Watercress

Green goodness in the Winter

My favorite Watercress-picking spot surprised me this past summer. All of the Watercress disappeared. 3 years ago, I could barely see the stream because the Cress was so darn thick! The summer after that, I noticed it wasn’t as thick, but it was still plenty abundant. It was absolutely shocking this past summer to see nary a trace of it whatsoever……especially knowing that Watercress is considered invasive in Wisconsin. I don’t have a theory as to why it disappeared……the stream looks clear and clean, and no other plant is taking its place. I guess it just decided to move on.

A member of the mustard family, Watercress has the interesting latin name Nasturtium officinale. Interesting because the familiar flower we call Nasturtium has the same peppery taste as Watercress…..but they are not related!

One of the things I love about Watercress is that it can be harvested year ’round here in the Frozen North. It grows in spring-fed streams which stay open even in deep winter. In the summer, it gets big and lush, rising like green leafy clouds out of the stream, but in winter, it hunkers down and stays close to the water’s surface. There’s not as much to harvest in winter, but it is vibrant and green and growing…….things we crave in these cold months. Also, as an invasive plant, it is legal to harvest in public parks and such.

It tastes peppery and delicious. Some people will say that the leaves get bitter when it flowers in the summer, but I disagree. I eat this plant year-round, including the flowers and immature seed pods.

There is a tiny bit of caution around eating Watercress…..if it’s growing in water that contains manure – a stream in a pasture, for instance – there’s a chance that bacteria and parasites will be present and possibly cause you to regret eating Watercress. In his book “Incredible Wild Edibles”, Sam Thayer goes into great detail about these critters, if you are interested in learning more. Those bacteria and parasites are rare around these parts, and are absent in the winter. Cooking your cress rather than eating it raw will make it safe to eat in any season.

Beautiful winter-harvested Watercress.

I don’t worry about it, and I always just rinse and soak my Watercress, pick out the nicest looking leaves and put it in a salad. Recently, however, I did get a Big Surprise in my harvest. After rinsing and soaking my winter-harvested Cress from a new-to-me location, I transferred the clump of Cress out of the soak water into another bowl, and started picking off luscious green leaves. And then……..I saw something squiggle. Hmmmm. Leaves don’t squiggle. I looked into the bowl containing the soak water. Squiggles. Lots of them. Urp! I may have freaked out a little. And then my curiosity got the best of me.

Leaving the bowl of squiggling Watercress alone for the moment, I concentrated on looking at the tiny wiggling grey-ish critters in the soak water. (Here is a link to a short video I took of them) They were the size of the white part on my clipped-short fingernails. They looked an awful lot like teeny-tiny shrimp. Right here I’m going to Shout Out to the Wisconsin Master Naturalist Volunteer Program, which I completed in 2018. Because of that training, I knew that in order to identify these tiny hitchhikers, I would search for Aquatic Invertebrates.

After looking at several sources, I landed on an amphipod called a ‘scud’…..or…wait for it….freshwater shrimp. One source says they are edible. I would like to tell you that I scooped them out and threw them onto my salad. I did not. In fact, the watercress that I finally picked through and set in the refrigerator is still waiting for me to be brave enough to eat it. Squiggles and all.

Surprise, just like in Crackerjacks.

Wild Food Journaling

From my Journal: September 15, 2019: We went to the cabin for the weekend. Drove to one of the hiking trails west of the cabin and found a TON of chanterelles growing in moss underneath some pines. Most were too far gone – it’s been so rainy lately – but we picked plenty.

I’m not much of a journaler. I dislike keeping a diary, and any time I have tried to journal for personal growth, I end up shredding the notebook. Gah, who wants to read that stuff?! But Wild Food Journaling…….Yes. I DO want to read THAT stuff.

I was inspired to keep a Wild Food Journal after reading Jim Gilbert’s book “Nature Notes” a few years ago. Some of you “of a certain age” have probably heard Jim Gilbert on WCCO Radio, doing his “Nature Notes” show. He’s retired now, but that was a fun show.

My Nature Notes Journal are different than Jim’s – I’m pretty much just chronicling the wild and medicinal plants and mushrooms that I find, where they are, when I found them, and what the weather has been. I have records back to 2015 that help me remember when and where to look for the Wild Things I love.

I like the physical act of writing with a pen on paper, but that’s not the only way to keep a journal. One year I kept my journal in a Word document on my laptop. I was thinking it would be great to be able to do a search for a particular word, like Chanterelle, so that it would automatically show up without me having to read through half my hand-written pages to find them. That was a great perk…..but I really missed the comfort of sitting on my comfy couch with my favorite pen and notebook in hand, reliving the day’s adventure…..so back to the spiral journals I went.

There are also several cell phone apps that could be used. I’ve only dabbled a bit with a couple of mapping ones, and I’m not really sure what I’m doing…..but the general idea is that you can place a marker on the map with a note saying whatever you would like about that marker, for instance “Lots of Elderberry bushes here”. That could be pretty handy because then you’d have GPS points to go to, rather than wondering “how far down that trail did we walk before we found those Elderberries??? Gaia GPS is one that I’ve looked at and Hunt Stand is another. When I get more confident using them, I’ll post more about them. 🙂

Purslane

Portulaca oleracea

If you have a garden, it is very likely that you’ve seen (and possibly cursed) this weedy cousin of Moss Rose. In fact, its Latin species name “oleracea” means “of the garden”. I hope you’ll be happy to know that not only is this low-growing succulent plant edible…..it is delicious, to boot! and because the roots aren’t terribly deep, I like to let it spread, to keep the quack grass from taking over the garden.

Purslane is as versatile as it is prolific – you can eat the leaves and stems raw or cooked – in sandwiches, salads, soups and hot dishes. I even pickled some last year and they were absolutely fantastic. I was a little nervous after I poured the hot pickling brine in the jar packed with purslane leaves and stems, as they shrunk up quite a lot and I was afraid they would be a slimy mess. But….they were not slimy at all, and amazingly kept their texture and were very delicious. You can use any pickling recipe you like. I like a simple brine: 2 cups mild vinegar (rice vinegar or white wine vinegar), 4 cups water, 3 T salt and some garlic cloves. Boil, pour into jars packed with Purslane leaves and stems. Cover tightly, refrigerate after cooling. So yummy!

Like all other wild foods, Purslane packs a lot of vitamins and minerals, plus it is a rich source of heart-healthy Omega 3 fatty acids. As a succulent plant, the leaves and stems are nice and juicy, and the flavor is a tiny bit tangy. I love eating it straight out of the garden. It keeps well in the refrigerator, too, so you can have it handy to put into your salads and whatnot. Here are some great recipes that feature this abundant (not so) wild food.

Enjoy!!

Jewelweed

Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis

Jewelweed is in full bloom right now, and it is thick as ever out by our swamp. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds love these lovely little flowers, and so do I. It is amazing to me to watch this plant grow each year – it starts out every spring with tiny little 2 leafed babies popping up from the dirt, and by August it is a 4 to 5 foot tall, very dense shrub. In the late fall and early winter, the entire mass dies completely back so that you can’t even tell it was ever there!

I don’t eat this plant, though it IS edible when very young. It contains a lot of calcium oxalates, increasing at the plant gets older. Even when young, it’s advised to cook it well, boiling in 2 changes of water. That just doesn’t sound very yummy to me, lol!

What I DO use this plant for, though, is the juicy stuff in the leaves and stems. It is a very nice remedy for skin irritations, even ‘big’ ones like Poison Ivy. I make a strong ‘tea’ with the leaves, stems and flowers and then strain and freeze the tea in ice cube trays. Just this weekend I was out harvesting some other plants on the side of a dirt road and wasn’t watching where I was stepping. My husband called out from the car “Hey, isn’t that Poison Ivy right there?”. Well, “right there” was right where I was standing, with my bare feet in open toed sandals!!! We high-tailed it to a nearby establishment where I washed my feet the best I could in the public restroom, then as soon as we got home I got one of my Jewelweed ice cubes and rubbed it all over my feet. Boy did that feel good after a day of being all hot and sweaty! That was 2 days ago now, and no blisters yet. (Keeping my fingers crossed)

The little seed pods are great fun, too. Later in the season, fat little seed pods will appear, and when you pinch them, the fleshy pod splits and curls up, spitting the seeds out rapidly. It feels alive in your fingers and first-timers often jump back, shaking their hand as if there were a bug on it, lol! If you can catch the seeds, they are a nice little trail nibble, tasting nut-like. The grandkids love popping those little seed-pods, and I love watching them interacting with nature. 🙂

Here is a little bit more information about Jewelweed, and where to find it.

The seeds, and the curled-up seed pod.
The grandkids!

Creeping Charlie

Oh, Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea), how this poor thing gets a bad rap. As a member of the Mint family, it spreads easily and prolifically, populating lawns, gardens and driveways with it’s bitterly-minty-smelling leaves and petite purple flowers. Try as you might, you aren’t going to get rid of Creeping Charlie, so you might as well eat it, right?

It’s easy to throw some of the leaves into a salad, whether it’s made from fresh greens, or a tabouleh-style salad. You’ll likely want to chop it into small bits since it is fairly bitter tasting, but pleasant when mixed with tastier stuff.

That teeny-tiny purple flower is surprisingly delicious, and not bitter at all. It’s a bit tedious to pick any significant amount, but fun to nibble on them while harvesting the leaves. I like to toss a few of the flowers on top of a cream cheese veggie dip, to make it pretty.

My very favorite way to use Creeping Charlie, though, is to make tea. It is very mild, with the bitter note in background and more of a sort-of-sweet flavor than you’d expect. I’ll use fresh or dried leaves and stems to make tea in the summer, and of course just dried ones in the winter.

There are a couple other plants that look very similar to Creeping Charlie – Purple Dead Nettle and Henbit. They are both in the mint family, and both are also edible. Here’s a great article with details about how to tell them apart.

Don’t you love it when a ‘problem’ plant turns out to be something really good instead?? 🙂

Garlic Mustard

They are pretty, but………..

Garlic Mustard is considered invasive in Wisconsin, as are many other plants. It also happens to be delicious to eat.

Right now as I write this, it is flowering, and it really is pretty. But…….you can easily see how it crowds out all the other plants that like to grow near hardwoods: trout lily, spring beauty, ramps, etc.

Conventional methods of controlling invasive plants include poisoning them with weed killer. The trouble with that, of course, is that other plants and critters we WANT will also be poisoned, and that poison will stay in the soil for longer than we want to admit.

Pulling and eating Garlic Mustard is a great way to give it some boundaries and force it to share the space with other spring pretties in the forest.

Usually when we forage, we want to harvest carefully so the plant can continue to grow, but that’s not a concern with Garlic Mustard so we’ll pull the whole plant up, roots and all. The roots are shallow, so it isn’t hard to pull at all, even when it is tall and flowering. I don’t want to eradicate ALL the Garlic Mustard….the whole plant is edible and delicious, after all. It is so tenacious, though, we don’t have to worry about it not coming back.

If you are pulling flowering plants, be sure to either use the flowers in your food prep, or put them in the garbage. Those flower heads will continue to mature and set seed after harvesting, so if you compost them, you’ll be spreading the plant around, opposite of what we want to do!

Once you get your bag full of Garlic Mustard plants, here are some delicious ways to prepare them.

Roots: They taste like horseradish! Put them in a blender, mix with a little vinegar and salt and use like horeradish sauce.

Leaves: Use in your salads, chop up and add to pasta, make delicious pesto.

Flowers: A pretty garnish for salads, soups or dips.

Baby Garlic Mustard. Yum.

Mushroom Weirdos

I never really stop thinking about hunting for mushrooms, but when winter starts to melt into Spring, I get obsessed. I pull out my notes about where I’ve found which kinds, and I look at my calendar to plan Mushroom Dates with my husband Dan (thank goodness he is such a good sport and loves a fun mushroom hunt!).

“Mushroom Weirdo” could very well be a term for those of us who obsess about hiking all over creation to pick strange-looking stuff off the forest floor and eat it. (You know who you are…..). But I think of “Mushroom Weirdos” as being the fungi that don’t look like the classic cap-and-stem mushrooms. They are my favorite kind to hunt and eat, because they tend to be so distinctive looking, and have few, if any, poisonous look-alikes.

Here are some of my Very Favorites, in no particular order.

Pheasantback is a nice consolation prize when I’m out hunting for Morels. I find them exclusively on dead hardwood trees, particularly Elm. Isn’t it pretty? It really looks like it has feathers, doesn’t it? Slice this one thin, fry it crisp and enjoy. The texture holds up nicely in soups, too.

Underside of Pheasantback. See the large pores? That means this one’s going to be tough – you can still use it for mushroom stock, but it’ll be too tough to eat. Small pores = tender and pleasant.

Oyster Mushrooms are so yummy! No, they don’t taste like oysters, but I guess they are named that because they look like oysters. I find them on dead hardwoods. They smell faintly of anise, and the flavor is nice and meaty. I like pretty much all of my mushrooms fried in butter and seasoned with salt, this one’s no exception.

Underside of Oyster. See how the gills go all the way across?

Bear’s Head Tooth is a really interesting looking mushroom, with it’s longish soft ‘spikes’ hanging down off of a solid core. The one on the left is at a perfect stage for harvesting, the one on the right is a newly budding one. I find them on Dead wood, both hardwood and conifers. Lion’s Mane, Comb Tooth and Pom Pom Mushrooms are other common names.

The first time I saw this mushroom, I thought it was moldy dog poop. Seriously, who was the first person to see this on the forest floor and think “Hey, I think I’ll try eating that!”?? Fortunately for us, someone DID, and now I love me some Shrimp Mushrooms. They don’t taste like shrimp, but they kinda/sorta look shrimpy, and the texture is VERY shrimp-like. If you cook these up and throw them in a seafood chowder, you could totally make yourself (and your friends) believe you are eating shrimp. They usually grow in clusters, right on the forest floor near a dead tree.

Hen of the Woods looks like a large fleshy flower to me. Those ‘petals’ have pores underneath rather than gills, and are attached to a solid core. I usually find these on the ground at the base of a live oak tree, and sometimes on dead oak stumps. This mushroom is nice and firm, and holds it’s texture really well even after being dehydrated/rehydrated or thawed out after freezing.

There are so many more Weirdo Mushrooms that I love……and I will save them for another post. In the meantime, Happy Hunting!!

Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads

Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads

Quite often, people will ask me what my favorite thing to forage is. Every time, I think hard……….and come up with the same answer. Fiddleheads. There are so many things to love about foraging for this yummy food:

  • They come up early in the spring, when I’m chomping at the bit to get outside. In my journals from the last few years, I’ve noted the dates that I’ve seen and picked all kinds of wild foods, and I’m already scanning my fern spots for signs of life.
  • It’s easy to pick enough for a few meals – Ostrich Ferns are prolific spreaders, often forming large colonies with the plants fairly close together. Snapping a fiddlehead or two from each plant fills up my bag fairly quickly.
  • They are SOOOooo yummy! I like them cooked simply, just steamed and served with butter. The taste for me is like a cross between asparagus and green beans.

All ferns have fiddleheads – that’s the term for the curled up frond as it emerges in the spring. Not all fiddleheads are edible, though, so it’s important to know what to look for. Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) has the most commonly eaten fiddleheads, and here are some key points for identification:

  • The “Nest”: See that large brown thing at the top of the above photo that looks sort of like a spider? The ‘legs’ of the ‘spider’ are last years’ fronds, and the lumps in the middle are baby fiddleheads about to emerge from a cup-like structure that I call the Nest. Other ferns grow in clumps, but lack that cup-like Nest Thing.
  • The Paper-like coating: Those brown baby fiddleheads at the top of the photo are covered with a brown paper-y stuff that breaks open when they emerge. You can see a tiny bit of green poking out of the one on the top right. At the bottom of the photo, the fully emerged fiddleheads are nice and green, and you can see the remnants of that papery coating around the bottom.
  • The Celery Groove: No, not a cool dance – not that I know of anyway. 🙂 You can see how those green Fiddleheads at the bottom of the picture have a groove toward the inside, like celery does. Other ferns have a slight groove, and Ostrich Fern’s groove is very pronounced.
  • Smooth Stems: Lady Fern looks pretty similar to Ostrich Fern in my opinion, even having a slight groove, but she has little brown hairs on her stems, while Ostrich Fern stems are smooth. Sometimes that paper-like coating will break up into pieces, stick to the fiddlehead stems and look like hairs, but up close you can see that it’s not.
  • Habitat: Ostrich Fern prefers a bit of shade, and moist, rich soil. I usually find them in the woods, sometimes with a river or a lake fairly close by.

Happy Hunting!! If you’d like some help identifying wild edibles, check out my class schedule or consider a Bountiful Backyard Gathering.