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Jessica’s Garden: Backyard Bounty

Morel Foraging in the Spring
Morel Foraging in the Spring

Well, I felt adventurous this week. Amongst many other mini adventures, my main excitement came from foraging in the backyard. I spent a little time scouring the trees, plants and grass for potential crafting materials while Grayson tortured wildflowers and swung around big sticks. This time of year, once the weather starts to cool, I find that all kinds of new stuff start popping up to save and craft with later. I picked up a few handfuls of acorn hats, as we call them, out of the lawn and combed the yard for bright fall leaves for pressing. For the sake of experimentation, I also picked a handful of gooseberry and black nasturtium leaves out of the garden for pressing.

Nasturtium and Gooseberry Leaves for Pressing

But the biggest excitement of all was certainly of the fungal variety. I was combing the woodpile, looking for funky fungi when I spotted about four clumps of an alluringly bright mushroom growing from the oak logs.

Something in my head sparked and I felt like I had seen and heard of this particular mushroom before. I checked with a few reliable resources and did quite a bit of research online, and sure enough, it was exactly what I had hoped it was.

It turned out to be an edible wild mushroom commonly called Chicken of the Woods but also referred to as Shelf mushrooms. I’ve only in very recent years gotten into foraging for wild edibles, so I am naturally still tentative and suspicious.

We’ve been foraging morels at my parent’s house now for a couple years. They have an extensive patch of earth that sprouts these nutty and delicious wild mushrooms in the Spring. My aunt and uncle introduced me to morel hunting several years ago. Keeping in mind that I am not an expert in wild edibles, particularly foraging for wild mushrooms as this can be very dangerous, I’d like to share a bit of my newly gained knowledge.

Note from the Editor at Behnke Nurseries: We would like to emphasize strongly that you Must Know What You Are Doing if you are foraging for wild mushrooms/fungi. There are many mushrooms out there that can make you very ill or even kill you. Take a class, take a field guide, and make sure your will is written. Just sayin’. Larry Hurley

Fresh Chicken of the Woods

Chicken of the Woods are proposed to be a great mushroom for beginner foragers. There is no other look-a-like mushroom that could confuse someone into eating a potentially dangerous version; they range from bright yellow-orange to orange to salmon in color and fade as they age.

Usually Chickens grow in clumps on decaying hardwood. You will never find a shelf mushroom growing out of the earth; it will always be on a tree or stump. Most commonly, they are spotted on hardwood trees such as oaks but are known to grow on other trees.

The research I encountered all advised not eating if harvested from a conifer, cedar or eucalyptus tree, as this may cause stomach upset. These mushrooms must be cooked before consumption – they should not be consumed raw. Also, research also advised going easy the first try as some people are inclined to gastro upset if too much is ingested. If you are interested in trying one, I highly advise it, but also do a little of your own research first, of course.

As we had never tried this variety before and were heeding the warnings of taking it easy during the first encounter, I mixed the Chickens with Shiitake mushrooms for my meal. I was amazed at how delicious and meaty they were. The rumors are true; they did taste and look a lot like slices of cooked chicken. I had also read in my research that they are a number one vegetarian choice for a chicken substitute, and I can definitely understand why. Everyone in the family enjoyed them and no one experienced any sort of gastro upset.

I have had two harvests now from different locations. The first harvest contained four clumps. I cooked fresh with one cluster and cleaned and sliced the other three into strips and laid them out in the dehydrator for cooking with in the winter. They can be used as a chicken substitute in most recipes. In addition to dehydrating which they seem to do very nicely, they can be sautéed in oil or butter and frozen. The second harvest is patiently waiting in a paper bag in the fridge for inspiration to strike. But last night’s supper was truly delicious.

Wild Mushroom in Red Wine Sauce

Wild Mushrooms in Red Wine Sauce over Fettuccini
Serves 2-3

1 C Wild Mushrooms; sliced (I used ½ C Chickens and ½ C Shiitake)
1 Red onion; diced
1 ½ Tbsp each olive oil and butter
Spring of Fresh Thyme
1-2 Cloves Garlic; minced
¼ C + some for garnishing; Shaved Parmesan Cheese
½ Lb Fettuccini Noodles; cooked
¼ C Red Wine
½ C Fat Free Half & Half
1 ½ C Vegetable Broth (Reserve 1 Tbsp)
1 Tbsp Flour
Pinch Red Pepper Flakes
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter and olive oil together in cast iron pan. Caramelize onions and mushrooms on medium to medium/high heat; let them get nice color to them by not turning too often. Add garlic, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes and thyme. Turn down heat to medium/low. Make slurry with 1 Tbsp vegetable broth and flour; set aside. Deglaze pan with red wine. Add remaining stock and half and half; Simmer, do not boil as dairy may curdle. Slowly add about half of slurry while stirring.

Wait to see if the stock thickens a bit. Add Parmesan and gently stir in. If sauce is not to desired thickness, add more slurry and let cook to thicken. Serve over fettuccini and with more Parmesan. You can substitute any mushroom you are comfortable with consuming. I imagine oyster, beech or baby portabellas would also be tasty. We had fresh steamed green beans and a slice of rosemary bread on the side.

Pepper Harvest

In addition to the Chickens, I also dehydrated a number of jalapenos and fish peppers as well as a volunteer pepper that spouted from the compost that I showed mercy and let thrive. I am unsure of the volunteer pepper variety, but it has a very mild flavor similar to a green bell pepper with thinner flesh and a pointier shape. This should be an easy addition to homemade spaghetti sauce this winter and the hot peppers will be great for chili.

Coffee Sack Memo Board

My mother rescued a vintage frame from the side of the road for me a couple weeks ago. This week it was transformed from a rather filthy and dingy grey to a distressed and bright sky blue. I made a hemp criss-cross with vintage-style upholstery pins, a flea market coffee bean sack and corkboard. What was a shabby frame last week is a now shabby-chic-meets-coffee-shop memo and cork board this week. The moral of this week story is you never know the amazing things you can find in your own back yard…or your neighbor’s trash.

Posted By: Jessica J. Crawford Behnkes Garden Blogger

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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