Creative Sustenance

Culinary and other adventures in foraging, gardening, urban farming and more, in Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Acorns, manna of the forest

I could begin almost every entry with "When I was a kid...".

When I was a kid my fondness for acorns was almost romantic, if that's the right word to describe a never waning curiousity and compulsion to gather and fill my pockets with the magic little capsules. I loved the artful look and contrasting texture of them (a smooth and shiny sphere topped by a course and fuzzy beret). But even more appealing than their outward appearance was the promise contained within. Inside each shell was the promise of not just a single giant tree, but the potential for a whole forest of giant trees. One kernal, if it fulfilled its individual potential could lead to countless more trees, more acorns, more forest. More deer and squirrels, and other animals and birds too. 

Acorns also carry the promise of food, whether it be food for those deer and squirrels, who in turn provide food for we humans, or immediate food for us as we consume the nuts directly. In that regard acorns remind me of domestic corn, where a single cob offers the promise of a meal and many future meals.

Oak trees can produce truly astonishing amounts of acorns. Read any article on the subject and you'll likely get figures from between a couple hundred up to 700 or more pounds of nuts per tree, depending on various factors such as tree species and the quality of the mast in any given year. That's thousands of pounds per acre. In my opinion, no other wild nut embodies the concept of nature's abundance so succinctly as does the acorn.

Acorns drying

Shelled acorns.

I wrote about processing acorns into flour a couple years ago (Oct. 30, 2013). You can click here: Acorn Flour, to view that process. I used basically the same cold leach method this year as I always do, although I did also hot leach* a portion of the acorns and then dried them in the oven before fine grinding, just to compare the two methods again. Other than a slight difference in color in the finished products I noticed no significant difference in quality between the hot and cold leaching methods this year. The expected additional bitterness sometimes associated with the hot leach method did not manifest. I also performed the final grind in a commercial coffee grinder, set at both espresso and turkish grinds, which produced a wonderfully fine flour. However, as excellent as the flour quality was the oils in the nuts did result in some caking and extra post-grind cleaning of the machine.

Leaching is necessary to rid the acorns of the bitter tannins they contain. They're pretty well inedible without going through the leaching process. You use water to leach the bitter stuff out of the nut, just as you leach the good stuff from tea leaves with water. Cold leaching is the preferred method if flavor is a more important consideration than time. It generally takes at least a week of cold leaching, with daily water changes, to sufficiently remove the bitterness. Hot leaching is quicker. It can be accomplished in a single day, but has the disadvantage of occasionally resulting in a bit of residual bitterness even though most of the tannins may be removed. Heat can alter some of the internal compounds of the nutmeat and result in an off-taste, just as overheating garlic, for example, can result in a bitter taste. I took my time and regularly tasted the acorns during the hot leach, to make sure I didn't go too far with the process. My diligence paid off and the flavor was fine. Again, please refer to the blogpost I linked above for a more detailed review of the cold leaching process.

Cold leaching ground acorns, day one.

Cold leaching ground acorns, midweek.

I ended up with 4 large jars of fine quality acorn flour, storing it in the freezer until ready to use. Acorns can become stale, like any nut, and freezing significantly slows that deterioration. We use the flour most often in bread, pancakes and pie crusts, but I've also used it in cookies and donuts, breakfast gruel, dumplings* and as a thickener in soups.  The acorn "milk" that comes from the cold leach process, particularly after the first day or two of leaching, can also be used as a liquid ingredient in bread-making or anywhere else you might use water as an ingredient. It can also be drunk straight up or with a bit of sweetener such as honey and/or maple syrup. There are nutrients in that milk, why waste them? I'm also planning to be experiment with acorn milk this year in my homebrewing efforts. Acorn Beer sounds like a winner.

Acorn flour.

Acorn flour.

We love the bread that acorn flour produces. It's flavorful, filling and richly satisfying. I generally use a loose 1:2 ratio of acorn flour to bread flour when adding no additional dry ingredients (e.g., cattail pollen, flax or corn flour). If you want a bread that acts more like a bread then you do need to use wheat flour, as acorn flour doesn't have the gluten required for bread to rise. The resulting bread is denser and has a more compact crumb than regular wheat flour bread.

Acorn bread.

Basic Acorn Bread Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1 heaping cup acorn flour
  • 2 generous cups bread flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp dry yeast
  • 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cup lukewarm water

1. Thoroughly mix dry ingredients in large glass bowl.
2. Add 1 1/2 cups water and mix thoroughly. Add more water if needed, to create a wet, somewhat shaggy mass of dough.
3. Cover bowl with cling wrap or a tea towel. Set in a warm place and let rise for 10-12 hours.
4. After the initial ride scrape the dough out onto a floured surface and quickly knead into a flattened ball or oval, depending on the shape of the final loaf you prefer. Wrap the ball, seem-side down, loosely with cling wrap, or place back in bowl and cover again. Let rise again for an hour or two (it won't rise too much the second time).
5. Heat oven to 450 degrees. If you want the normal store-bought loaf shape, oil a bread pan and place the oval-shaped dough in it. Or, if you prefer a rustic, round-shaped loaf you'll use the rounder dough ball. In that case, place a dutch oven with lid into the oven and allow to heat to oven temperature. When the dutch oven is hot, place the risen dough ball gently into it, cover and place back in the oven. Bake for approximately 30 minutes. Remove dutch oven lid and bake for an additional 20 minutes. If using the regular bread pan, simply place in oven and bake for approximately 45 minutes. Check interior of bread with wooden skewer to assure that it's done. Let cool on a wire rack.

Acorn bread.

Acorn Flour Pancakes

  • 1/2+ cup all-purpose or bread flour
  • 1/2 cup acorn flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • glug of vegetable oil
  • 1 egg

1. Mix dry ingredients in bowl.
2. Whisk together milk, veg oil and egg in another bowl. Add liquid to dry ingredients and mix quickly and roughly with a fork.
3. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Pour a small glug of oil in pan and spread it around.
4. Pour about 1/3 cup of batter for each pancake. Try to fit as many as you can into the skillet.
5. When the surface of the pancake gets a little bubbly, then gently flip and cook the other side for a couple minutes until browned and interior isn't doughy.
6. Top with a bit of butter, maple syrup, berries, whatever you like.

Acorn pancakes.

*Hot leaching: I filled a deep sauce pan about 1/3 to 1/2 full with shelled nuts. I then ran hot tap water into the pot, set it on a burner and brought it to a boil. Once the water came to a boil I stirred the nuts for about a minute, drained the water and repeated the process. It took 10 or so water changes before the nuts began to taste tannin-free and bland. I continued the process a few more times until they were bland and palatable. I drained the acorns and patted them dry with a towel on baking sheets. Then, I set the oven on low, placed the baking sheets into the oven, propped the door and allowed them to dry over several hours, giving the pans a shake every so often. After the nuts dried completely I chopped them up on a cutting board with a chef's knife, dried them in the oven again for a couple hours, and finally ran them through the grinder to turn them into flour.

* The recipe for acorn dumplings may be found here: Squirrel & Dumplings Soup.

Acorn flour bread with wild grape jelly.

Acorn flour bread.


"Ever eat a pine tree?"

Euell Gibbons helped me to see that pine trees offered so much more, in the form of culinary adventure. I looked for and thought about other edible aspects of pine trees. What did Gibbons mean when he said, "Many parts are edible?" Could you just pluck a twig and start chewing?...

Read More

Squirrel & Dumplings Soup (acorn dumplings too)

...chicken noodle soup became squirrel noodle soup, and I decided to make it even more traditional and belly warming by adding dumplings. I remember with great fondness the dumpling soups my mom and grandma would make: giant kettles of soup (grandma had 11 kids of her own and always an assortment of cousins and grown-ups wandering in and out of the farmhouse on any given day) with big white, glistening dumplings floating on top. They were wonderful. 

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Shaggy Mane Mushrooms

As my work season is winding down I've got a slew of blog posts in the bag that I plan on posting semi-regularly - two or three times a week I think - over the next four or so months. I've been sharing images and a few thoughts on our facebook page over the summer, and maybe I'll pull some of those into something more blog post-like over fall and winter too. Lately I've been sharing images of shaggy mane mushrooms we've been finding over the last week, and one of my FB friends just asked, on my personal page, how to prepare them...just as I was finishing making soup. Well, the Packers are just about to kickoff against the Vikings and I've got the time to share that recipe right now while the game is on (Go Pack!).

Shaggy mane mushrooms. The tall one on the right is opening up, starting to turn black at the cap edge. The others look good.

Shaggy Mane, aka Inky Caps, are popping up all over town right now. I've been hopping out of the car pretty regularly to cut them from the grassy edges of sidewalks, parks, unmowed fields, under lone trees in gravely parking lots, close to fish cleaning stations and even on the lawn by the Post Office. They're easily identifiable (I won't go into identification details in this post; you can find that information in lots of places online), very fragile and ephemeral. Once you pick them you better be ready to prepare them asap or clean and freeze them, or you'll have an inky mess before long.

They are self-digesting, going from a soft though semi-firm state to a dripping, black inky liquid. You'll find them from small, little button-sized knobs to large, 6-inch-plus, shaggy vertical torpedoes. You'll also often find them in various states of disintegration in the same spot. You want the ones that are semi-firm, white and as closed as possible at the stem and cap junction. Their outer skin may be a little rough in appearance and texture, or peeling in numerous curling flakes not unlike the appearance of a fat, whittled fuzz stick, the kind used by Boy Scouts and woodsmen to get a fire going.

These are really not the kind of mushroom you saute' or fry like you might a button or morel mushroom. They're too insubstantial for that, too water-bound. But I've had good luck slicing the firmest ones into ¼ inch length-wise chips and flash frying over high heat in bacon grease til browned. We'll do that very thing for a garnish with this soup. These are very mild mushrooms, and have a soft, gentle earthy flavor not unlike the button mushrooms you might get at the grocer.

To clean the mushrooms simply rinse under cold running water with a little thumb rubbing to remove grass and dirt. Sometimes the outer shaggy surface skin will very easily peel or rub off, leaving you with a smooth, egg-like mushroom. There's no need to remove the stalk, so keep the cap and stalk together. Here's the super simple and tasty soup recipe. My brother stopped over as I was finishing cooking and he declared it to be "Excellent! Delicious."
 

Ingredients
5 to 7 cups shaggy mane mushrooms, roughly chopped
1½ to 2 cups chicken or beef stock (I used beef this time, because it's what I had on hand)
1 to 1½ cups whole milk
couple tbl spoons butter
couple onions or shallots, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, diced
Sea salt and cracked pepper
Sour cream
Chives
Handful of small, nice, firm mushrooms, sliced length-wise, ¼" thick

1. Saute' over medium heat the onion/shallots and garlic in a stock pot until soft.
2. Add chopped mushrooms and continue cooking for several minutes. If it looks like you're getting too much water in the pot, raise the heat and cook some of that off quickly, but don't compromise the integrity of the mushrooms.
3. Salt and pepper.
4. Add the chicken or beef stock, turn the heat down a bit and continue simmering for several minutes.
5. Add the milk and continue simmering, being careful not to burn or curdle the milk.

Once everything in the pot is well acquainted turn the heat off and allow to cool a bit. While cooling, add a tablespoon or two of bacon fat to a skillet, get it hot and gently lay the sliced mushroom pieces in the hot fat. Let the pieces brown on one side before gently turning them over to brown on the other side. It shouldn't take but a few short minutes. Place the pieces on paper towel to drain.

When the soup mixture cools enough to blend in a food processor go ahead and blend in small batches until smooth. Return to pot and if the soup looks too watery you can make a roux and add to thicken it up. Heat and serve, adding a dollop of sour cream, chopped chives and a few browned mushroom slices for garnish. Shaggy Mane Soup...it's quick, simple and very mushroomy.

Shaggy mane mushroom soup

Waxworm breakfast wrap

Part of my interest in foraging, survival skills and food in general has included insects as food. When I was a "kid" I used to spend hours while camping harvesting ant eggs and adults from ant colonies, grasshoppers from fields, certain water insects and a few grub-type critters. At that time I wasn't much of a cook and so my culinary experiments mostly consisted of simply sauteing things in a little oil or butter with onion. That's still a great and simple way to approach entomophagy, the eating of insects as food (although I didn't know there even was a word for it back then, and just looked at it as something that was in line with the technology-scarce lifestyle I was attracted to at the time). 


Anyway, I'd kind of let that part of my foraging/self-sufficiency interests dwindle over the years, as I guess I came to look at it as something borne more of occasional curiosity than of any truly practical application. I've recently come to change my mind on the subject, and realize that there is indeed much genuine practical, ethical and culinarily satisfying reward to be got from entomophagy. I thank Daniella Martin's new book Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet for recharging my batteries on the subject of insects as food. 

I decided to get my feet wet again with a simple breakfast wrap using a common and easily acquired little beast known as a waxworm.

Waxworms are the caterpillar larvae of wax moths. You may acquire waxworms from just about any place that sells live bait for fishing, which is where I got mine and is how I've always used them up to now. They are a great panfish bait and are a staple during the ice fishing season especially.

Wax moths also happen to be one of the unwelcome insects that give beekeepers fits, as they feed on the comb in hives and generally make a mess of things once they get into a hive. As a small time beekeeper this aspect of their behavior made their attendance on the menu even more satisfying.

By themselves waxworms have an almost bland and uninteresting flavor. They remind me of potatoes in that regard, in that they are good vehicles for the flavors of whatever they may be prepared with. Some describe their flavor as slightly nutty, and I suppose that's fair, but it's a very mild nuttiness if at all. The biggest hurdle you might have to overcome, if you're at all squeamish about eating insects like this, is their texture, which is soft and juicy prior to cooking. But cooking does indeed address that issue; as the larvae saute they stiffen up, gain some nice firmness and even get a little crispy if you saute them long enough.

Here's all you do:
Rinse the waxworms and gently dry them. Toss them into the freezer for a while to kill them if you're averse to putting them into the pan while they're still alive. Saute a bit of onion and/or garlic (I used ramp bulbs and onion) in a tablespoon of olive oil. Add a couple tablespoons of chopped greens such as kale. Once those things soften and mellow add the waxworms. Periodically flip the worms and saute until they become firm, gain some color and get well acquainted with the other ingredients. They'll stretch out and stiffen up as they cook, whether you put them in dead or alive, but their tiny screams will be minimal (I'm kidding!). Pull one or two of the waxworms as you cook and give them a try; that'll not only help you discern whether they're done or not but will also give you a good idea of their flavor and texture.

I then scrambled up a duck egg with a little cheese, set the egg and cheese onto a tortilla, added some radish sprouts and topped it all with the waxworm/ramp/onion medley. Mighty tasty in every respect.

So, you can expect more posts and maybe even a video or two on the subject as I dust off the old butterfly net and make space in the freezer for new, albeit smaller packages of "meat." 

Just a few images from this morning

Took a quick walk through the woods this morning (still waiting for morels to appear). No mushrooms yet, but did grab a few other edibles for today.

(left to right) Ostrich fern fiddleheads, ramps, trout lilies, virginia waterleaf and one garlic mustard plant (with root for photo purposes, otherwise I'd have got more).

Ostrich ferns, ramps in background.

Trout lilies and virginia waterleaf. Trout lily bulbs go into a salad; I've always used the waterleaf as a sandwich green...that'll be today's lunch. 

Ostrich fern fiddleheads. Image a little grainy, as I enlarged the top pic.

Garlic mustard with its peculiar angled root (at the base of the leaf cluster), an identifying characteristic (they don't always angle like this, but often enough).

Garlic mustard. Note the difference in leaf shapes: roundish or kidney-shaped near the bottom of the plant, pointed or arrowhead-shaped near the top. 

Lunch. Steelhead sandwich with waterleaf and ramp greens (and Carr Valley cranberry chipotle cheese), salad with added trout lilies, garlic mustard, ramp greens, and chaga tea.

Thunder and lightning are a beautiful thing

I'm lying in bed at 5:00am on Monday morning, catching the flashes of light from lightning and counting the seconds until the thunder that follows. 4-mississippi equals 4 miles away, that's how it works, yes? How many sounds are cooler than than the sounds of thunder and rain in the dawning light of morning? Well, maybe the sounds of thunder and rain on the roof of a tent, while your snuggled deep into a heavy, warm sleeping bag are cooler, but I'm in the house this morning and it'll do.

It's been three months since my last post on the blogsite here. Three months that went by in a blink it seems. It's been a busy spring, if you could reasonably call it spring. It's only been in the last week that it's felt like spring, with the trees budding and ramps popping up in the woods in the last five or six days. Everything is late. Don't even have the garden in yet, because it's been too cold. And now suddenly that it's warmed up in the last week I'm behind already.

We've been editing videos from last year, which has taken longer than I thought it would. But we've got some great footage. I'm even more impressed with Josh's film skills than I was before, if that's possible. I'm excited to get this stuff out there and to get rolling on more new stuff this year. Soon.

Big news, and the biggest reason I haven't stayed on top of the blog lately...started a new job. Working with the Wisconsin DNR right now as a Fisheries Technician for the county. That means I do creel surveys of fishermen (is it ok to call women anglers fishermen? "Fisherwomen" seems cumbersome. I think fishermen should be a gender-neutral term, so that's what I'm going with).

GIANT, cracking thunder! That one was closer than 4 miles.

Nice catch of steelhead and browns recorded while on the job.

I do angler counts at specific times along specific routes, interview anglers to see what they're fishing for, what they're catching, how long they've been out, what they're using, and so on; weigh and measure catches, look for tags and fin clips; write reports on each week's conditions and angler success. It's a great gig for me. I get to be outside and on the water. I work alone all day, and get to meet a lot of people, some of whom are pretty hardcore fishermen and have good tips and techniques that have proven successful for them, so I'm also able to increase my own knowledge base and mental tackle box, so to speak.

Daughter Cheyenne with one of the steelhead we caught last week.

I'm well into the groove of the job now, and now that spring seems to be really here at last, I'll get back to regular blog updates. In addition to ramps, several other wild edibles are starting to pop. I picked a small bunch of stinging nettles while fishing a few days ago, just enough for breakfast, and noticed that the ostrich ferns were beginning to make their appearance as well, so we should have fiddleheads soon. Trout lilies and Virginia waterleaf are up in force. Burdock and evening primrose rosettes are everywhere, and dandelions are almost thick in some spots...all in just the last few days. For as many years as I've been doing this, the wild edible thing, since I was a kid, I am still amazed, each and every year, at how quickly new green life bursts forth each spring. One day everything is brown and gray, the next day, boom! there's green poking through the earth! It always seems surprising.

Mayapples bursting forth!

Simple breakfast: stinging nettles & egg on toast.

My wife and I went for a long walk through a wood several days ago, ostensibly to look for morels, although I knew that it was still a little early for them in our area, given the late spring we've had. Maybe this week, if we can get a couple warm days to light a fire under their little mushroom behinds. Until then, there are more fish to be caught, plenty of other greens to make room in the fridge for, and a garden to plant. 


Going to shut my eyes and listen to the rain and thunder now.

 

 

quince apple blueberry pie with chocolate acorn crust

Here's another recipe I've been sitting on for the last couple months. I made this for a dinner we held for some of the supporters of my wife's place, Drift Coffee Club. We collected the acorns, quince and apples during our autumn foraging, but as we had gone through our blueberry stores we ended up purchasing those, which you can probably tell by their larger size in the photo. I'd not used quince much before (made some chutney once) , so was eager to see how it played here. I think what really made this pie extra special though, was the acorn flour crust. Acorns are a terribly underused and underappreciated resource; they have much to offer the forager cook, and I plan to spotlight their use in the kitchen with greater emphasis this year. You can see how we process acorn flour by clicking here.

Let's make the crust first (one 9" pie).

Acorn & Chocolate Pie Crust

  • Acorn flour, approx. 2 cups
  • All-purpose flour, approx. 1 cup 
  • Sea salt, ½ tsp
  • Brown sugar, 1 heaping tbl
  • Butter, unsalted, approx. 1½ sticks, cut into ½" chilled pats
  • Water, cold
  • Semi-sweet chocolate chips, approx. ¾ cup

1. Mix dry ingredients together well. I used the acorn flour here in the same way you would use all-purpose flour when making a simple pie crust. But you'll find that it does not behave like a regular floured pie crust. Acorn flour does not, by itself, make for a pliable dough as does regular flour. It's more crumbly in nature. 

2. Add chilled butter squares and work into the flour mixture until well incorporated. Add cold water, about a tablespoon at a time, until you get a workable ball of dough. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

3. Lightly flour your work surface with either acorn flour or regular flour. Cut the dough into 2 pieces, approximately 2/3 and 1/3 the size of the whole. Place the larger ball of dough onto the work surface and gently roll it out into a circle larger than the pie pan. The dough will be less pliable and will have the urge to break apart, so be gentle when you lift it up and place it into the pie pan. If pieces do break off, no worries, just fill in the spots with more dough where needed. Take a fork and pepper the bottom and sides of the pie pan with holes.

4. Bake at 350° for 10-12 minutes. Keep your eye on it while it's in the oven, as it will want to bubble up, and I didn't use the foil and beans method to weight it down. When you see it start to bubble open the oven door and give it a poke with a fork to deflate the bubbles. Be careful to watch the browning too much as well, because it seems to brown more quickly than a regular flour crust...remove it from the oven when it looks good. Set aside to cool.

5. Melt the chocolate chips (microwave or stove-top) and pour into the bottom of the cooled pie crust. Set aside to cool and harden.

note: After you add the filling you'll roll out the smaller dough ball and use as the top crust. I didn't take a photo of the completed pie because we were having such a good time eating and talking that I just forgot about it.

apple quince blueberry pie w acorn crust  11-24-13.JPG

Filling

  • Quince, 1 or 2 medium sized, peeled, cored, sliced thickly
  • Apples, 1 or 2, GrannySmith or similar, peeled, cored, sliced thickly
  • Honey, ½ cup
  • Water, 1 cup
  • Ground cinnamon, ½ tsp
  • Ground nutmeg, ¼ tsp
  • All-purpose flour, 2-3 tbl
  • Sugar, ½ cup
  • Salt, just a pinch!
  • Blueberries, handful 

1. Combine quince, water, honey, salt in large lidded saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 -10 minutes, until fruit softens a bit (but not too soft). If you need to add more water along the way, do so. 

2. Spoon out the quince into a separate bowl. Add the sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg to the still-hot cooking liquid and mix well into a thick syrup. Add the apple chunks and stir well. Add the quince back into the pan and stir everything gently but thoroughly. Leave the mixture sit in the pan while you roll out the other dough for the top crust.

3. Once you've got the top crust ready to go, empty the contents of the pan into a colander and allow to drain for a few minutes. Pour into a large bowl. Then, add 2-3 tbl white flour and gently incorporate the flour into the quince and apples. You don't want things too wet as they goes into the pie crust, and the flour will help absorb some moisture. Preheat the oven to 375°.

4. Pour the apple quince mixture into the chocolate-lined pie crust. Add a handful of blueberries evenly to the top of the filling. Attach the top crust dough (be gentle when pressing the edge, as the lower crust will be a bit harder than the top crust and you don't want to break it...it's not imperative that there be a perfectly complete seal). Score the top crust several times to allow steam to escape. Bake for around 45 minutes, until crust is brown and done, but keep an eye on it - depending on how well you pre-baked the bottom crust and how much the quince and apples softened in the prep stage, the cooking time may vary a bit.

5. Allow to cool. Enjoy! 

The lost recipe found!

One day, more than 20 years ago, I was sitting at the kitchen table in my Grandma and Grandpa's house in northern Wisconsin, after another successful morning of squirrel hunting in the woods on their property. I was doodling on a yellow pad of paper when my grandma asked me about all of the squirrel hunting I did and why I liked it so much. Ever since I was a wee lad I'd be out squirrel hunting whenever I could and probably shot and ate more squirrels from the woods adjoining both their farm and, later, the woods that surrounded the home they built after they sold the farm, than they might have imagined could possibly inhabit those forests.

Anyway, that afternoon my grandma asked me to write up a recipe for her, for how to cook squirrel. She surely wasn't asking because she needed to know. After all, she had spent much of her life cooking for her husband and herself, and their 11 children, as well as the constant flow of friends and extended family that always seemed to be a part of their daily life. I think she just asked me to write something up for her because she knew that hunting and cooking those critters was something I enjoyed, and that's what grandmothers do.

So, not having any idea, really, of how to actually record a recipe, this is what I came up with, my first written recipe for anything. I doodled a little picture at the bottom of the page and taped the paper to the inside of one of her cupboards, where it stayed for many years. One day, years later, I opened the cupboard to get a plate and noticed that the paper wasn't there anymore. I asked Grandma what had happened to it, but she didn't know nor even realized that it was missing. I was a little saddened by its disappearance, because it was a marker of sorts, an artifact of memory, so to speak.

An hour ago my brother posted on my facebook page a photo-scan of the recipe I had written all those years ago. Apparently he was the culprit who had swiped it from Grandma's cupboard! I'm glad he saved it. It's funny, as I look at it now and see how primitively and sparingly I wrote it. 

Anyway, it made my day seeing this little piece of personal history again.

Addendum: The plot thickens! I shared this post* with my brother and he replied, "Last night Mom and Dad handed me the yellowing paper and said it fell out of one of Grandmas old cookbooks. I posted it for you to see... Killer of innocent Tree Varmints."

So, it appear that my bro did not pilfer the lost recipe after all. Grandma must have taken it down and secured it in one of her cookbooks for safe-keeping, which begs the question, did she not tell me that she had done so because she simply had forgotten that she  had done so, or did she feign ignorance because she valued and wanted to keep the little paper her grandson wrote. I like to think the latter.

* I felt it proper to change the title of this post from "The stolen recipe found!" to "The lost recipe found!"

Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie

Here's a pie I made for Thanksgiving dinner last month. 

I fiddled with this recipe just a bit by adding the chocolate and slightly adjusting the measurements, but credit for this lovely, easy-to-make pie goes to Allison Kave of First Prize Pies and Keavy Bleuher of Kumquat Cupcakery, who together founded a dessert and cocktail bar in Brooklyn called Butter & Scotch

  • Nutter Butter cookies, 1 dozen
  • Butter, ½ stick, unsalted, melted
  • Semi-sweet chocolate chips, ¾ cup
  • Salt
  • Creamy peanut butter, ¾ cup
  • Cream cheese, ½ pkg (4 oz), room temperature
  • Powdered sugar, ½ cup & ¼ cup
  • Heavy cream, 2 cups
  • Vanilla extract, 1 tsp
  • Peanuts, ¼ cup chopped

1. Pulse the cookies and a pinch or two of salt to the consistency of sand in a food processor. Empty into a mixing bowl, add and mix in enough melted butter to pull it together. Press into a 9" pie dish, including up the sides. Freeze for 15 minutes and then bake at 350° for 8-10 minutes. Cool the crust until it hardens up.

2. Melt the chocolate in the microwave and gently pour into the pie dish. Pop into the fridge and allow to cool.

3. Combine and thoroughly mix the peanut butter, cream cheese and ½ cup powdered sugar. 

4. Whip 1 cup of the heavy cream until stiff peaks form. Fold completely into the peanut butter mixture. Spread the peanut butter/whipped cream mixture into the pie dish. Allow to cool and harden up in the fridge for 30 minutes.

5. Whisk the other cup of heavy cream with the vanilla extract and remaining ¼ cup of powdered sugar until stiff peaks form. Spread over the pie in a rough manner, so that you have a tall, irregular topping. Sprinkle with the chopped peanuts.

I plan on making it every Thanksgiving...because it's awesome. Make it; you'll say it's awesome too.

 

Christmas chocolate torte

Over the last month I've shared some pictures on facebook of a few things we made for holiday meals, and was asked to also share the recipes. So, the next three or four blogposts will spotlight those recipes from Thanksgiving and Christmas. We'll start with a chocolate torte that we made again for Christmas this year. This torte has become one of my favorite holiday desserts. It's simple, very attractive and also very delicious. (My daughter brought a piece to one of her friends, who declared it "The best thing I've ever eaten!" Of course she was being generous with her compliment, but not by much!)

I got the recipe for this lovely torte years ago from a magazine of holiday recipes. What attracted me was the photo that accompanied the recipe, as it highlighted chocolate almond "pinecones" on a decorative and rustic topping. Here's how you do it.

To make the chocolate almond pinecones you'll need:

  • almond paste (comes in a tube or small can...smells wonderful too)
  • sliced almonds
  • semi-sweet chocolate chips, about ½ cup
  • shortening, 1 tbl

1. Form the almond paste into little cones, maybe a couple inches tall and an inch or so wide at the base.

2. Stick the sliced almond pieces into the cone in a pinecone-like formation.

3. Stick a swizzle stick or toothpick into the bottom to help hold onto the pinecone. Heat the chocolate chips and shortening in the microwave until liquified. Gently and slowly drizzle the chocolate, in a thin stream, over the pinecone, and use another toothpick or small artist's paintbrush to fill in the spots that the drizzling doesn't touch. Note: If you try to dip the cone or pour the chocolate on too heavily you'll just get a big bumpy chocolate blob. Be delicate and patient.

4. Place the finished pinecones on a wire rack to harden up. I put the rack in the freezer for a while. You can reuse these if you're careful with them. Place them in a small tupperware container and pop in the freezer until you want to use them again.

For the torte itself:

  • Chocolate graham crackers, about 1½ cups
  • Sugar, ¼ cup
  • Butter, ½ stick or more, melted
  • 9-inch springform pan

1. Combine chocolate graham crackers and sugar in food processor and pulse until the consistency of sand.

2. Dump contents into a bowl, add melted butter and mix well.

3. Press the mixture into the bottom of the springform pan and bake for about 8 minutes at 375°. Set aside to cool.

  • Bittersweet chocolate, 4 ounce bar
  • Semi-sweet chocolate chips, 4 ounces (about ½ cup)
  • Baking chocolate, 4 ounces (if you want a lighter-colored top use white chocolate. This year I changed it up a bit and wanted a darker top, so I used dark chocolate)
  • Plain (flavorless) gelatin, 1 packet (¼ ounce)
  • Egg yolks, 5 or 6
  • Sugar, ¼ cup
  • Half-&-Half, 1 cup
  • Heavy whipping cream, 2 cups

1. Add gelatin to about a ¼ cup of water and let it sit.

2. Add each of the chocolates to a separate mixing bowl. You might briefly microwave them to soften the chocolate up.

3. Add the egg yolks to another mixing bowl and beat them until fluffy. Add the ¼ cup of sugar and continue beating until well mixed. Follow that by adding and mixing the half-&-half. Pour the mixture into a saucepan and heat to 160°. Remove from heat and add the gelatin. Stir to combine.

4. Pour a third of the hot egg yolk/sugar/cream mixture into each of the three bowls of chocolate. Stir to thoroughly mix and melt the chocolate. Allow everything to cool for about 15 minutes.

5. In a mixing bowl whip the heavy cream until it achieves stiffness and peaks form. This will build endurance and strength in your forearms and wrists if you do it with a hand whisk. 

6. Loosely and gently fold a third of the whipped cream into each of the bowls of chocolate. Saving the lightest colored chocolate mixture for last, pour one bowl into the springform pan, smooth it out with a rubber spatula and pop it in the freezer until it's pretty firm. Add the next bowl and do the same, freezing it until it's firm. Then do the same with the last, lightly colored chocolate mixture. 

7. While the torte is in the freezer melt some semi-sweet chocolate and fill a brine syringe or something similar with the melted chocolate. Take the torte from the freezer and make some decorative leaf and branch designs on the surface with the melted chocolate. Squirt some melted chocolate on the bottom of the chocolate almond pinecones and place them on top as well.

8. Be gentle when removing the sides of the springform pan from the torte. Also, while slicing through the torte itself is very easy, you may have to use some force when you get to the graham cracker crust; be firm but gentle.

There you go, a chocolate dessert that everyone will be impressed with.

Squirrel & red wine chili

Wintertime is chili time, and my winter chili demands game meats when possible. Venison chili is of course a favorite, but any game will do, whether venison, grouse, rabbit, raccoon or, in this case, squirrel. I had a large bowl of squirrel loins and ribs in the fridge, which are every bit as tasty as the thighs and forequarters, but have a smaller meat to bone ratio, which makes them great for something like chili or making stock.

Squirrel and red wine chili

The other key ingredient to this particular chili is a wine I made from some grapes my friend Marty gave me last year. The wine itself was good, and I thought it would nicely compliment the rich, dark meat goodness of the squirrel. My Dad also gave me a giant can of red beans the other day from a dented can store he frequents near his cottage, so I didn't need to soak or cook any dried beans.

Chili lends itself to improvisation, and that's what this recipe is, but it's pretty close to the recipe I used to win a little chili competition a few years ago. 

Ingredients (quantities are very loose for this, and depend on what I've got on hand and what suits my mood at the time):

  • Meat - could be anything or any combination of things. I used a couple pounds of squirrel, a few pieces of thick bacon, and a bit of ground beef. Sausage, like venison sausage, also works real well.
  • Beans - any kind or combination of beans. I've made this with northern beans, white beans, black beans, etc. For this batch I used a couple cups of canned dark red kidney beans, rinsed.
  • Diced tomatoes - one 28 oz. can.
  • Tomato sauce - one pint jar of homemade sauce.
  • Tomato paste - 3 or 4 tbl.
  • Green salsa - homemade, 1/2 cup.
  • Sweet corn - 1 cup.
  • Mushrooms - about 2 cups sliced.
  • Celery - 1/2 cup, diced
  • Onion - 2 or 3 medium sized, roughly chopped.
  • Garlic - several cloves (maybe half-a-head), diced.
  • Hot peppers - a few, sliced small
  • Spices and flavorings - smoked salt, pepper, pimenton, cayenne, cumin, bay leaf, hot sauce, couple tsp fish sauce.
  • Red wine - couple cups.
  • Corn starch or flour to thicken.
  1. Cook meat in a skillet in bacon fat, low and slow until tender and seasoned with salt, pepper and cayenne. Separate meat from any bones. Chop it up to the size you prefer.
  2. Add meat to a large kettle. Toss the mushrooms, celery and onions into the still-hot skillet, leaving the fond from the meat in the pan, season as you see fit, and cook until they start to soften. Add the garlic and peppers and cook for a few more minutes.
  3. Add skillet contents to the kettle of meat and begin heating at a medium temperature. 
  4. Add beans, sweet corn, salsa, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce and paste, fish sauce, hot sauce, red wine. Simmer until all the ingredients get friendly with one another. You can thicken the chili if you feel the need, by stirring in a bit of flour or corn starch. I'm constantly tasting and adding seasoning or heat (hot sauce) as I go along. I also made a small quantity of broth from the squirrel bones while preparing the chili, in case I felt I needed to add more liquid. I didn't need it, so I'll use it in some other manner, probably in a soup. 

I turn the heat down to the lowest setting and let the pot sit on the stove for a few hours, slowly getting better and better, visiting to fill a bowl every now and again. Of course you can add cheese and/or sour cream when you dish it up. It just gets better the longer it sits.

Winter

It is "officially" winter here along the lakeshore of Wisconsin. To my mind winter has not truly arrived, no matter what the calendar date, until we get our first good snow, the kind of snow that completely covers the grass and sticks around for at least a few days of cold, blustery weather. We got that very thing a few days ago.

It's been cold. The thermometer has been hovering around 10°F during the day and below 0° at night. I've worried a little about the ducks, even though I know they can handle the cold so long as they're out of the wind. Still, they spend a lot of time on their bellies, often walking just a few feet in the snow before dropping to the ground for several minutes to warm their duck feet beneath their bodies.

The ducks are easy to catch now too, which I do ever so often when I go out to feed them or chip the ice from their water pails and refill with warm tap water. Where in the warm months they'd lead me on a comic chase if I tried to catch one, now they just seem to look at me with an expression that says, "It's too cold to run through this snow so go ahead and pick me up if you must. Just don't get the idea that I enjoy it." Whichever one I happen to capture, I'll hold his or her cold webbed feet in my hands to try to warm them up a bit, or place her in the larger plastic tub filled with warm water. They really enjoy being in the water, bathing, splashing, quacking happily. I imagine the warm water feels good, but they sometimes seem hesitant at hopping up into the tub themselves in the cold weather. I don't know why. Maybe it just requires too much effort at a time when energy conservation is a priority. When they hop out of the tub the water freezes on their feathers in tiny beads of ice.

I also like to think that during winter the normal hierarchical pecking and antagonism between the older and younger males abates a little bit. The conflict continues, but it seems less contentious and mean now that it's become too cold for the old man to chase the young fella too far. This is a time of year when the proximity of other warm bodies perhaps overcomes instinctual pecking order issues.

Winter. I love it. I love being outside, in the quiet woods, at streams of defiantly flowing water, with snow covering and muffling everything. It's the time of year when a stand of snow-covered pines seems cozy; when cinnamon and wood smoke smell even more wonderful than they normally do; when hot coffee, brandy and cream is a favorite breakfast drink; when I quietly thank the person who invented flannel bed sheets. It's the time of year when we prefer candlelight to electricity, when having friends over for company is even nicer, when we feel like actually writing an honest-to-goodness letter with pen on paper, and when hugs serve a dual purpose of warming the spirit and the body. 

It's that time of year when it's easy to catch ducks.

 

Squirrel & Mushroom Pizza

My daughter works at an Italian restaurant and the other day she brought home a little bag of pizza dough that was left over at the end of the night. I also had a loin and ribs in the fridge from some squirrel I hadn't cooked yet (I've got to start sharing my squirrel recipes...one of my favorite game meats). Well, the two bowls, of dough and squirrel meat, were looking like they wanted to be friends.

Squirrel & mushroom pizza.

I split the dough up and made enough for three small pizzas with added onion, mushrooms, greens and olive oil. Delish!

Sumac, another use: za'atar spice mix

Every Cub Scout or Boy Scout knows that a sweet/tart Kool-Aid-like tea can be made from fresh staghorn sumac berry clusters. You can also make sumac wine, jellies and other foodstuffs from sumac. Two or three weeks ago I harvested a small late season basket of semi-dry sumac berries for one specific purpose: I wanted to make a batch of za'atar, a spice blend popular in Middle Eastern cooking. 

Staghorn sumac berry clusters. These berries have started to dry and are mostly past their prime for making fresh tea, but they're still good as a spice.

I had read that za'atar is put to good use when combined with olive oil as a seasoned dipping oil for bread - we love bread and oil as an appetizer or snack - as well as a seasoning for meat such as lamb or goat. 

Za'atar is a spice blend that can be purchased through just about any spice company, as is sumac alone. You certainly could make your own za'atar blend by combining purchased herbs and spices. It's such a simple and easy blend to make, usually combining less than a half-dozen ingredients. But we're all about using as many ingredients as we can from non-commercial sources, such as from a garden, foraging, bartering and so on.

Note: We're not opposed to purchasing food items from the grocery store or from any commercial source, not at all - we strongly support buying quality food from quality sources - but rather because we're also in favor of saving a buck here and there, of doing things that you can do via your own effort and creativity, and of simply having fun while pursuing a more self-sufficient lifestyle. 

Anyway, making a spice blend with herbs from the garden and foraged sumac is one of those small activities that yields both home-grown flavor and a good dose of fun in the making. 
While there are variations to the recipe, basic za'atar ingredients include:

  • sumac
  • thyme
  • sesame seeds
  • sea salt
  • oregano

Oregano, thyme, sumac, sesame seeds.

Oregano is actually one of those ingredients that is not considered essential, but is occasionally added to some blends. I had dried oregano from this year's garden and thought it would be a nice addition, so added it to the mix.

The processing of the sumac berries is the only real time consuming part of the recipe, and it's about as easy as falling off a log:

Strip the sumac berries from the clusters and toss them in a food processor. Pulse repeatedly until all of the fuzzy stuff is nicely pulverized and almost powdery. Pour the processed sumac into a sieve with holes of a size that will allow the fluffy stuff to sift through but that will retain the small, BB-like sumac seeds. I found that a standard hand sieve or strainer worked just fine. You want the seeds out, because they're as hard as rocks. Then toss the good stuff back into the food processor and run it again to grind it down even more finely. Sift it again. And then sift it again. And again. No seeds...you don't want someone cracking a tooth on one of the little beasties.

I processed enough sumac to yield about a ½ cup of dried, processed sumac berry. I think it required around 8 or 10 berry clusters.

Next, I added 3 or 4 tablespoons of dried thyme, 1 heaping tablespoon dried oregano, about 3 tablespoons of lightly toasted sesame seeds, and 1½ teaspoons sea salt. I toasted the sesame seeds in a hot cast-iron skillet for a few minutes, shaking it constantly until they became fragrant and lightly browned. Then I quickly and not too rigorously pulverized most of them with mortar and pestle. Stir everything together or put it in a tupperware container and shake it until it's mixed. That's it.

Taste it and make adjustments where you think it needs it. I ended up adding a bit more sumac because I like the tartness. I immediately made some dipping oil by adding some olive oil and grated parmesan, and soaked it up with chunks of italian bread while watching an old episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern (love that show). I'm also anxious to use the blend as a rub for a bit of goat I've got in the freezer; I think it would do well with that meat.

Beechnuts - a union break from shelling

I'm really just making this blogpost as an excuse to take a break from the finger-fatiguing work of shelling beechnuts. Beechnuts are one of my favorite wild nuts to eat, but also one of the most tedious to shell. They're tiny, a challenge to hang onto, and require a little more finesse, and therefore focus, than, say, butternuts or walnuts, which you can just whack with a hammer. Beechnuts need to practically be peeled from their smooth three-sided carapace. Not a job for a blunt instrument or a distracted frame of mind. 

A small pile of even smaller autumn beechnuts.

My process is, in fact, to peel one of the three sides with a knife while pinching the back-side joint of the other two sides with the fingers of my other hand. I peel from upper point downward to the bulbous bottom, hopefully removing the shell side in one piece, whereupon I hope to use my thumbnails to pry apart the remaining shell sides to release the nutmeat within, whole. That's the way it usually works anyway, and the nut will practically fall out of its little teepee. Once in a while though, it requires more effort with the knife edge on one of the other shell sides. 

Here's a nutmeat (center foreground) revealing itself from its shell after I peeled one side off (it's still attached, like a drawbridge). The three leaves of a shell lie around another nutmeat to the right. Whole unshelled nuts on the left and shelled nutmeats on the upper right.

It's not necessarily a slow process. I can average two or three beechnuts per minute, depending on their size and how smoothly I'm able to perform the initial cut. But when the reward is a nutmeat the size of a pea and an hour worth of concentrated effort yields a third of a cup, it can seem more tedious than it probably actually is. But isn't it true that the best things often require the most effort? 

Shelled beechnuts. The papery skin, or testa, should be removed if possible. I'll rub a handful of nuts gently together between my palms to loosen the testa and then winnow it away.

Well, breaks over...back to work. I'll share how we use these beechnuts in the kitchen when we're done shelling. Talk to you again in a few months then I guess.

 

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