Tag Archives: foraging

Treasure Hunting

Don't go anywhere without your basket; you never know when you might need it!

I’ve written about foraging before, and my interest in it has heightened this year. It’s hard to describe the satisfaction of stumbling upon a bevy of beautiful blackberries, a carpet of brilliant orangey-red chanterelles popping out of brown leaf litter or a miniature forest of almost-camouflaged, apricot-scented black trumpets. While finding edible treasures is easily more than half the fun, the resulting culinary creations are all the more satisfying for having found the ingredients yourself for FREE in the WILD! Foraging is also an excuse to be outside paying close attention to nature in all its glory and learning more about the myriad plant life around us. Plus, eating foraged food is apparently all the rage now, as demonstrated by the international acclaim bestowed upon the Scandinavian restaurants Noma and Faviken, which have become trend setters in serving dishes centered on food found in their backyards. Further proof of the interest in this trend appears in an article in the October issue of Outside magazine profiling the Maine forager who supplies restaurants such as Momofuku.

When I tell people I’ve gotten into foraging, the response is either “Cool!” or, more often, “Aren’t you afraid of getting poisoned?” The short answer is “no.” I’m extremely careful. If I have any uncertainty, I either don’t eat the specimen or run it by people I consider to be experts. Of the seven or so edible mushrooms I feel totally comfortable in identifying now, even someone with a small amount of experience can, with a bit of close inspection, rule out whether they could possibly be something toxic. And none of them resemble any type that would be life-threatening.

Plump for the pickin'!

A friend recently said she even feels a little weird eating wild blackberries for fear they’ll somehow make her sick. I find this mindset ironic, but understandable. We’re so conditioned to buy our food in the seemingly sanitary environment of a grocery store, where it’s contained within a neat box sealed in plastic. And yet the chances of getting sick from cultivated food is so much higher than from the same food found in the wild where it hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals or touched by germ-ridden hands. In much of Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, foraging, and mushrooming in particular, doesn’t have this culture of fear associated with it. It’s been a family activity for centuries, with knowledge passed down from generation to generation. In his informative and entertaining book Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares, Maine mycologist Greg Marley talks about the myths associated with mushroom hunting and counters those myths with useful facts like “there are more edible mushrooms than poisonous ones, and more still that are non-edible but not poisonous,” “handling a toxic mushroom will not make you sick” and “the vast majority of toxic species cause symptoms that are, while unpleasant, not life-threatening.” And perhaps most tellingly, “On average, one or two people die of mushroom poisoning in the U.S. each year.”

One of the most surprisingly wonderful things about black trumpets is that they smell distinctly of apricots.

This isn’t to say that you should go about foraging without a care in the world. If you’re thinking about mushroom hunting get several books (I find it useful to consult a variety of guides as the information and pictures they provide vary), study specimens carefully before even thinking about eating them and seek someone with mushrooming experience to take you on a guided walk. As Marley says, “Nothing can boost confidence better than seeing a mushroom in the hands of a knowledgeable person.” Starting with one or two easy-to-identify varieties is a good idea and then, if you like, you can try to expand your list each year.

Red chanterelles, a rare find in Maine, were a gleeful discovery this summer.

The foraging mindset becomes a bit addictive once you’ve hit a few jackpots. For a few years now, my husband and I have found chicken of the woods mushrooms, usually without even searching for them. They have a way of just bursting out of a tree into your line of vision. This year, I was hoping to expand on our repertoire of known edible fungi. That wish was granted when, in August, my husband, who frequently runs on trails, brought home a delicate, reddish-orange specimen that looked mightily like a red chanterelle as far as I could tell from my handy Peterson guide. We went back and gathered a mother lode of them from that spot and had their identity confirmed by fellow foragers much more knowledgeable than we. Our sources were slightly taken aback as apparently the red chanterelle is uncommon in Maine. Once that happened, we became junkies constantly on the lookout for our next fix. Our craving was satisfied on a mushroom walk with former mushroom exporter and current amazing cheesemaker, Barbara Skapa, organized by the Belgrade Lakes Conservation Alliance in late August. It was here that we learned with certainty what black trumpets, yellow-foot chanterelles, golden chanterelles and lobster mushrooms look like. And once we had the knowledge, they seemed to appear around every corner. Okay, not EVERY corner, but still, we had enough to feed ourselves and several friends many a meal. As of this week, we’ve also added hen of the woods (or maitake) to our “sure of” list.

Rose hip syrup made from the ubiquitous (in Maine anyway) rosa rugosa (or sea rose) is a versatile, Vitamin-C-filled additive.

While I find mushrooms among the most satisfying foraged foods to find given their relative scarcity, more abundant wild edibles like blackberries and rose hips are fun to collect as well. In his fantastic book Wild Garlic, Gooseberries…and MeDenis Cotter provides a number of wonderful recipes for foraged foods, including a tasty rose hip syrup that makes a pleasantly fruity base for salad dressing, a soothing, Vitamin-C-filled warm beverage or an earthy-sweet dessert topping. Before the snow falls, I hope to eke out the last of the edible treasures in our midst, but when the season is over, it’ll be that much sweeter for its brief reappearance six months hence.

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Busy Being Busy

Wow. It is OCTOBER. I can’t remember a stretch of time since I’ve had my own photography business when I’ve been this busy, which is why you haven’t heard from me in months. I really want to do a blog post about being busy, but well, I’m too busy. Seriously though, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Even when work is slow people say they are busy. Why is this? It’s because in this country it has become a virtue to always be busy and because even when work isn’t occupying our time, we fill it with a million other stupid, little things. You can’t say “I’m sitting around doing nothing, life is good!” That would just not be right. So the frequent answer to “how are you?” is “busy.” I’m going to pursue this topic further when I’m less busy, but since I have a rare, relatively light day of work I’m going to take advantage of it and post some photos from the past few months so you can see I have been busy!

A big chunk of my spring and summer was consumed with styling and shooting (and sometimes even baking the recipes for) a gluten-free cookie cookbook that will be published by Sellers Publishing in spring 2011. The cookbook author lives in New York, but the publisher, who was interested in working with me here in Maine, didn’t let that stop them. They arranged to have most of the cookies shipped! For the most part this went surprisingly well. On only a few occasions did it seem like FedEx must have run over the box of goods…repeatedly. In those cases, I would manage to rescue two or three undamaged ones out of a dozen and a half, or maybe show a “half-eaten” one in the shot. And the answer to everyone’s first question about this project is “Yes, I did get to eat them afterward.” (And I shared them when I was feeling generous…or had a dentist visit on the horizon.) The book will feature fifty recipes (and photos) organized into six chapters. Two of my favorites (both the photos and the taste) are below. Keep an eye out for this title next spring. It will make a great gift for your gluten-intolerant or gluten-sensitive friends, and those who can consume gluten safely will find several keeper recipes as well.

Walnut brownies and jam thumbprints, 2 of 50 photos I took for Gluten-Free Cookies, which will be published in spring 2011.

When not styling, shooting or eating cookies, I still surrounded myself with food, of course, including gardening, cooking and indulging in amazing meals made by others.

Ample sun and warmth this summer made for happy veggies—like these purple-top turnips—in our ever-expanding garden.

An alfresco dinner of food foraged from Maine waters, fields, shores and forests prepared by talented local cooks and chefs was a welcome respite on a sultry July evening.

And then it was back to work. For a New York Times article on the resurgence of locally grown wheat in the U.S., I shot at the Kneading Conference in Skowhegan, Maine, and at a nearby farm.

Grassland Farm in Skowhegan is experimenting with growing wheat, while Jim Amaral of Borealis Breads uses 10-20% local wheat in his bakery's bread.

As August neared its steamy end, I revisited the gardens belonging to a Cape Elizabeth woman who grows and preserves copious amounts of vegetables and fruit. Earlier in the year, I photographed her and her delicious peach salsa, made from her very own peaches, hot peppers and honey, for this story in Yankee magazine. It was a treat to go back when the trees were laden with fruit.

Locally grown peaches enjoyed the summer heat.

Currently, in addition to day-long assignments here and there, I’m in the midst of two longer-term projects. I’m shooting for Maine College of Art’s student viewbook, which has so far brought me to more than a half dozen colorful and creative events, including one of my favorite places to shoot in Portland, the farmers’ market. More on this project—which, thanks to a great graphic designer has pushed my shooting in a new and good direction—later.

Rainbows of color provided by Fishbowl Farm (left) and Green Spark Farm at the Portland Farmers' Market, one event of many I shot for Maine College of Art's viewbook.

The other project is a resurrection of the well-loved Savoring Maine food calendar that I produced in 2009. This time Down East will be publishing it with recipes from their various cookbooks. It will be called Great Maine Food and will feature my photography. It’s for 2012 (yes, publishers work WAY in advance) so look for it in local bookstores mid next year!

Candidates for the 2012 Great Maine Food calendar being published by Down East.

For someone who is busy, that was one lengthy blog post! But, I owed you. I’ll aim for shorter, more frequent updates in the future. Now I must go get ready for tomorrow’s shoot, a fun assignment for the cheese magazine, Culture.

Farming and Foraging

Here we are already in late May! We harvested the first big batch of mesclun greens from our garden this weekend. They were absolutely beautiful and tasty too. Work has been so busy (did I mention I’m doing 50 cookie photos for a gluten-free cookie cookbook coming out next year?) that life has really been pared down to the essentials, but one thing we always make time for is fresh, local FOOD. In addition to spending a lot of what little free time we have in the garden, my husband and I have embarked on two fascinating food-related field trips in the past month.

First, in late April we ventured up to Fishbowl Farm in Bowdoinham where we got an inspiring tour and hands-on demo from farmer Chris Cavendish. We’ve bought beautiful produce from Chris at the farmers’ market for several years, but had never actually been to his farm. When the opportunity arose to help him plant a bed in one of his new greenhouses, we jumped at the chance to see where and how his lovingly cared for veggies and herbs grow.

A farmer's feat: happy spinach in one of Fishbowl Farm's snazzy new greenhouses.

I think pretty much everyone knows farming is not easy, but how many people have actually witnessed their local farmers at work? Seeing the steps involved in just planting a small bed of arugula in a greenhouse was so eye-opening. There’s a lot more to it than just digging up some dirt and randomly throwing in the seeds in case you were wondering (even though in our home garden, we don’t do a whole lot more than that!). Trained as an architect, Chris is nothing if not precise. From the systematic watering of seedlings to meticulously cleaning and evening out plots of fertile ground, everything is done a certain way. I had to chuckle a bit when Chris would diplomatically correct Scott’s way of doing something, such as leveling out the soil. The photos below are probably the best way for you to get a sense of some of the steps involved in planting a bed from seed.

Farmer Chris demonstrates how to aerate the soil.

After worm castings have been added as a soil supplement, farmer for the morning tills the soil (while being careful not to step on it) with a nifty contraption powered by a power drill.

The expert soil leveler shows us how it's done.

The magic shoe boards make for a compressed, even surface in which to sow seeds.

Don't forget to check the chart to see what's next in line for planting!

Seeds (in this case arugula) are calculated to evenly disperse in the soil using this pinpoint seeder.

Shopping at the farmers’ market is all well and good, but you will appreciate the produce even more if you witness the planning and hard work that goes into each pea you pop into your mouth. If you get the chance, visit one of your farmers on his/her turf and see exactly what goes into growing and cultivating those gorgeous veggies you are eating. I’m guessing they’d be happy to have you take a look around. We’re very grateful to Chris for generously spending his time educating us about a small piece of sustainable farming. (Our garden beds at home are much more even now as a result!) When we saw him at the farmers’ market on Saturday, he informed us “our” arugula was for sale, so I guess we didn’t mess up too badly!

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Wild Maine plant expert Tom Seymour with edible wintergreen berries.

As you may have guessed from the title of this post, our other field trip involved foraging wild plants. We attended a walk at Crystal Spring Farm with wild plant expert Tom Seymour that was sponsored by the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust. While I’m probably not going to regularly go out and harvest milkweed, cattails and violets—because of taste and texture, as well as the time involved in accumulating enough to make a meal—it was fascinating to learn that these plants, among other commonly found wild vegetation, are edible. Seymour does primarily live off the bounty of the Maine woods (and his garden), claiming to enjoy some of the wild plants so much that he freezes them so he can indulge in the winter. With child-like glee, Seymour described the multiple uses for all these plants in their various stages of development from culinary to medicinal. For instance, the young green shoots of cattails can be peeled to reveal a white inner core that tastes a bit like celery. Later in the season, when the seed buds are green, they can be cooked and eaten like corn on the cob. Finally, the male cattail flowers produce pollen that you can use as a flour substitute (gather it by shaking the flower head into a bag).

The green outer layers of young cattail shoots can be peeled to reveal a crisp, white, edible interior.

The plant with the best taste that we found, in my opinion, is one called Indian cucumber. Its small root has the pleasant taste of a sweet cucumber. Speaking of Indians, I assume it’s them we have to thank for being the guinea pigs with these wild plants. I wonder if it was all a process of trial and error figuring out what could and shouldn’t be eaten. Luckily, there are some good guides out there to help us modern-day foragers locate the right wild plants. Suffice it to say, if I ever find myself in an Into the Wild situation in Maine, I’ll be in good shape—as long as all I have to do all day long is gather food.

Seymour holds the lauded Indian cucumber.