Wednesday, April 27, 2011


I've heard that morel mushrooms grow somewhere here at Dodge.  Somebody says he knows where to find them, but he won't tell. Perhaps bribery would work..

Ever notice that the best meals often feel "stolen?"

Perhaps you nicked some time for a special late night snack with your spouse.  Maybe that snack happened to be a handful of fresh morel mushrooms, suddenly sauteed.  And maybe you had just enough stale bread in the cupboard to make some surprisingly good toast points.  And just maybe you had a bottle of zinfandel on the counter that married the mushrooms and buttery bread like a wise old match-maker.  That happened to me.  Maybe you were standing on a street corner in a tiny town and somebody handed you an extra taco, which turned out to be the best taco of your life.  Happened to me.  Maybe you canoed to a tiny island in Penobscot Bay and dove into the clearest, coldest water to pluck blue-black muscles from the stony sea floor.  Maybe you happened to have a book of matches and made a tiny fire with driftwood and roasted those muscles in their own shells.  And maybe, while you watched a seal bob around your canoe, you decided then and there that those muscles, bathed in their own salty liqueur, were the best meal you ever had, or would ever eat.  That also happened to me.

So many good memories around food.  We can all remember the special yummy things we've enjoyed around holidays and special occasions.  And many of these memories are attached to our childhoods, but think about the stolen or unexpected moments when good food wasn't planned, when it just happened.  I would argue that a lot of these serendipitous moments occur in the spring, or summer time.  A lot of these moments are connected to fresh food, and food that is eaten, as the foodies say, "out of hand."  That taco was delicious because it was loaded with fresh greens and the handmade soft tortilla was warm and salty, redolent with the smoke and burn of a hot grill.  The morels were an unexpected gift from a thoughtful student and, in the rush of the day I forgot them, until at last the dishes were done, the children tucked in bed, the newspaper finally unfurled.  When I remembered the mushrooms, which had been picked that morning, I couldn't bare the thought of letting them grow a moment older.  The effort of  putting down the paper and rising from the chair, was worth it.  Those mushrooms tasted like spring.  Gifts from the sea, eaten at the seaside-- well, there really are no words for that particular delight.  And now spring is here, our yards and woods and fields are waking up.  Things smell good, and look good again.  Old hungers are awakened.  I crave the fresh and unexpected.

Diego Velasquez
Old Woman Poaching Eggs

While thinking about how to talk about springtime eating, I kept coming back to poached eggs.  I recently learned how to poach eggs and I've become rather addicted to the process.  A well poached egg is delicate and ephemeral, a fluffy and yet solid white pouch holding a vibrant pool of yellow.  You have to eat it fast and parsley is a necessity.  A sprinkle of salt, and, if you are feeling decadent, the redundancy of freshly made hollandaise sauce is very springtime-in-Paris.  Free ranging chickens start laying again as day length increases.  Spring.  Barnyard chickens are happy chickens and it is nice to eat the egg of a happy chicken (I think it tastes better too), even if it feels as though you are "poaching" that hen's egg.

Now bear with me.  The word "poach," as in poaching an egg by cooking it in simmering water, comes to us from the Old French word, "poche," meaning "bag."  Remember the yolk held in its own little bag of white, almost like a soft little purse?  And the word, "poach," as in to take something that doesn't belong to you, comes from the Middle German word, "poken."  "Poken" means to trespass, to poke into a place where you don't belong.  Historians believe that somewhere along the line the two words crossed paths.  Poachers carry bags for their quarry and all kinds of little "bags" are created by poking into things (pits, pocks, pockets etc-- "pick pockets" are poachers who poke).

I digress.

Why on earth do we find such joy in feeling like trespassers in the Garden of Eden come spring and summer?  It feels good to feel wild, to find our food in the field and enjoy it not too far from the field.  We no longer need to forage for necessity, but it sure feels luxurious to enjoy fresh finds.  Maybe that's just it:  we are now modern, sophisticated people.  We know how to process food and fiddle with it to the nth degree.  The juxtaposition of standing in our high tech kitchen and eating a raw thing from the woods is delightful, like camping is, in theory.  Eating fresh is to rusticate, to have options, but to choose the wild option.  When I was a kid, the best apples were those we stole from the neighbor's orchard, never mind that they were green and wormy.  The loveliest meal I ever had with my parents was picked in my own suburban front yard during a spring rain.  My dad noticed that mushrooms had sprung up in the green grass--marasimus oreades--fairy ring mushrooms.  He announced that he was going to pick them and we were going to eat them.  I wrung my hands about it.  Was he sure they were really edible?  How did he know?  "Trust me, Marlais."  What could I do but trust my father?  And so my dad and my mom and I picked them and sauteed them in butter and ate them right out of the pan with a bottle of pinot noir at my kitchen table while the rain fell softly, relentlessly into the grass.

Post your own "poaching story."

For fairy ring mushroom info:

For morel mushroom info:

For egg poaching, see Julia Child's recipe, the Fanny Farmer cookbook and my own rudimentary instructions on the food page of this blog.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Necessity is a Mother

I've heard it said that, "necessity is the mother of invention."  Actually, Plato said, in The Republic, "Necessity, who is the mother of Invention."  The idea being that if you need to do something, you learn how to do it, fast.  Last week, while I was cooking supper, my daughter ran up the basement stairs and announced, "There's some water down there."  My husband happened to be out of town, so I was the one who learned some things pretty quickly.  I learned:

-that one does not necessarily handle small sudden emergencies very well
-that a drain tile system does not work if the sump pump is not functioning
-that it is really good to have a contractor (and his helpful wife) for a neighbor, even if the contractor happens to be on vacation in Las Vegas 
-that the filter on an industrial wet/dry vac must be removed before one tries to suck up water with it
-that cell phones are good because they enable one to talk long-distance to Las Vegas while one is staring at a wet/dry vac
-that if the filter on a wet/dry vac is not first removed AND the reservoir is not first cleared of sheet rock junk, the machine begins to spew something akin to Portland cement
-that "Portland cement" is contractor talk for "stucco"
-that if Portland cement is poured down a laundry sink, that sink will clog
-that if a sink is clogged it overflows
-that a coat hanger will not clear a stucco clog
-that a toilet plunger can almost clear a stucco clog
-that leaving toys and laundry on the basement floor is a very bad thing
-that toys and laundry get heavier heavy when wet, especially when combined with Portland cement
-that barbie clothes shrink in the dryer
-that a cold beverage is very welcome when one learns many things in a small amount of time

What does this have to do with Dodge and nature, you ask?  Well, not so long ago, people didn't have grocery stores.  Prior to grocery stores, people had to learn how to cultivate food.  And before cultivation, people had to learn how to find food.  The people who migrated over the land we now call Dodge, knew how to forage-- hunger necessitated knowledge (which was likely acquired through some trial and error initially).  Fortunately, most of the guesswork has been taken out of spring foraging at Dodge, which is great because people like Pete Cleary, one of our naturalists, take lots of kids out into the woods to eat, and, well, a mistake could have serious repercussions.  I urge you to take a hungry walk in the forest this spring & summer and look for snacks.  Here is a short list of wild edibles and some resources for "going wild":

-dandelion greens (enjoy in a salad or deep-fried, as we do at Dodge)
-young burdock root (steam & mash like potato; salt liberally)
-morel mushrooms (these are perhaps the tastiest, and easiest mushrooms to id)
-stinging nettle (harvested young, with gloves on; when boiled or sauted it loses its sting)
-ramps (also called "wild leek" and found stream side)
-watercress (found in stream side)
-fiddle head ferns (the brand new shoots of wild fern, shaped like a fiddle's head)
-wild grapes or the new vine tendrils
-wild plums

Edible & Medicinal Wild Plants of Minnesota & Wisconsin
The Forager's Harvest
A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants

Let us know how the foraging goes!