Foraging on Two Wheels

Yesterday evening I joined Greg Monzel and friends in an activity combining two of my fave things to do: riding my bike and foraging for wild edibles.

It had been rainy all day and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. Especially since—even though I love cycling—I had never mounted my bike on a car carrier to drive it somewhere. (The foray started at White Pine Wilderness Academy, which is not in my neighborhood.) I also had to go to my local bike shop and get lights mounted (another first: cycling after dark!)

It all turned out to be worth the effort: I got to hang with some excellent folks, experience the woods after dark, and taste some interesting things. I was not brave enough to munch on a pillbug, however. Save that for another day.

Below are some photos from the evening. Sadly I didn’t get any of us on two wheels. You’ll just have to take the dorky bike helmets as evidence that we really did cycle to our destination, before dismounting and exploring.

Greg showing ??

Greg showing us polymnia canadensis, or white flower leafcup, which has some medicinal uses

Greg is an herbalist with a passion for learning, which makes him incredibly knowledgeable about plant lore, uses, history, and science. Also, the muck boots were a really good idea. I may have to practice cycling while wearing mine.

Maria inspecting winged euonymus

Maria inspecting winged euonymus

The berries are not edible, but I believe there are some medicinal qualities to certain parts of this plant.

Mighty burr oak

Mighty burr oak

This was the first of several oaks we assessed for acorn availability and tastiness. I ate part of an acorn before realizing that it’s best to leach the tannins out first. Oops! Nice texture, though!

Greg with promising fungal find

Greg with promising fungal find: Could it be the medicinal turkey tail?

While we were standing here, Maria found a step-by-step turkey tail identifier on her smartphone. How’s that for appropriate use of technology? Unfortunately we still could not definitively ID this fungus.

A closer look: might be turkey tail, a mushroom known for its immunomodulating effect

A closer look: possibly turkey tail, a mushroom known for its immunomodulating effect

No one was brave enough to take a bunch home to make into a decoction. But I did learn that ALL mushrooms have beta-glucans in their cell walls, and this is one of the things that gives them immune-boosting properties. (Tip: Cook shrooms for a long time over low heat, with water—that’s the key to accessing the beta-glucans.)

Shaking the pawpaw tree

Shaking the pawpaw tree

We struck out on pawpaws, but I’m told the week before, there was quite a haul.

Wood nettle. Watch out: It bites!

Wood nettle. Watch out: It bites!

We may be gathering seeds of this plant in a week or two. Yum!

Did I mention that “Fall Foraging Forays—Bicycle Edition” is a whole series, and you can drop in on the rest of the sessions? Check out Greg’s website for details.

Fomenting the Ferment

Fermentation on Wheels rolled into town over the weekend. Tara Whitsitt has been driving her mobile fermentation lab cross country since October 2013. As soon as I heard she was coming to Indy, I knew I had to make it to one of her events.

Fermentation on Wheels, a 1986 International Harvester school bus converted to a mobile fermentation lab

Fermentation on Wheels, a 1986 International Harvester school bus converted to a mobile fermentation lab

Tara’s mission is to initiate more people into the wonderful world of fermented foods (like sourdough breads, kefir, sauerkraut, wine, and kombucha). So far her tricked-out bus has traveled over 12,000 miles to share the love.

Tara with pawpaw vinegar

Tara with pawpaw vinegar

Saturday she did a fermentation workshop, which I hear was fabulous. Sunday evening, Seven Steeples Urban Farm (see my earlier blog post about them here) hosted a potluck and culture exchange. That’s where we met Tara and her beautiful kitty.

Tara's cat Franklin is her traveling companion.

Tara’s cat Franklin is her traveling companion.

We had a terrific meal together that included loads of fermented drinks and veggies, some from the pros: Joshua Henson of Fermenti Artisan brought cultured ramps and daikon radishes, along with water kefir lemonade and a bunch of other delicious stuff. There was also a popular fermented drink called beer.

After we ate, it was time to check out the bus.

Inside the bus, where all kinds of groovy stuff ferments!

Inside the bus, where all kinds of groovy stuff ferments!

“I really want to spur the movement of getting back in the kitchen and doing things with our own hands instead of relying on other people to do it for us,” Tara told us.

All across the country, she’s been partnering with farmers and homesteaders to turn local harvests into something out-of-this-world delicious. People give her their home-canned peaches, for example, and bushels of chili peppers. She dried the chilis and used them in kim chee, and they are also a key ingredient in her peach-habanero mead.

Peach habanero wine-in-the-making

Peach habanero mead-in-the-making, with blackberry mead at left

We sampled kombucha, miso, and a mysterious drink of Tibetan origin called “jun.” (Instead of the black tea and sugar that make up kombucha, jun favors green tea and honey.)

We sniffed three types of sourdough starter, each with a different backstory. For example, the Alaskan sourdough came from a person in Portland whose great-grandmother had made it in the 1900s in Alaska. White flour and milk were the original ingredients, and that’s what Tara feeds it to this day. The starter is a key ingredient in creamy sourdough hotcakes favored by Alaskans.

No wonder she calls her starter cultures “heirloom” cultures: They’re completely different from something purchased online, typically made in laboratories.

Eating food from a starter passed down for generations is like wrapping your grandmother’s Afghan around you. Versus a Kmart coverlet. One is imbued with love and history. The other with factory threads and who-know-what labor injustice.

IMG_4728I wish I could say I had something terribly cool to swap with Tara, but she wasn’t all that keen on my dairy kefir grains (of unknown origin: a friend of a friend gave them to me). So, I purchased a rye starter that hails from Brooklyn. As we speak, I’ve got sourdough rye bread dough fermenting on the counter. I’m using Tara’s instructions and recipe: Fingers crossed!

A Mycological Field Trip

Yesterday we drove down to southern Indiana to visit Magnificent Mushrooms, Eric Osborne’s hub for all things mycological. Located outside of Paoli, IN, this growing business offers products and information for the would-be home mushroom cultivator.

That turns out to be us: we came home with three kinds of spawn to put to work here on our wee homestead: “old faithful” shiitakes, Lion’s Mane, and King Stropharia (winecaps).

I will keep you posted on our efforts to expand our food production into the fungal kingdom! I’m a bit concerned about keeping Kitley (our outdoor cat) and his pals away from the logs and woodchips we’ll use as substrate. As I understand it, mushrooms are tolerant of many things…but they probably wouldn’t want to drink cat pee or get all clawed up, any more than I would.

Old Faithful is a strain of shiitake that is slightly furry. Here it is growing off a block of sterilized, inoculated grain.

Old Faithful is a strain of shiitake that fruits in a slightly furry mushroom. Here it is growing off a block of sterilized, inoculated grain.

I’m most excited about attempting to grow winecaps, also known as “the garden mushroom” for its friendly affinity for the vegetable garden.

Bags of King Stropharia spawn

Bags of King Stropharia (winecap) spawn

We plan to try starting it not only in our backyard beds, but also in a low-lying place in the front yard. A natural bowl beneath the sweetgum tree is often waterlogged, and Eric said this kind of spot is perfect for winecaps.

As for Lion’s Mane, I’ve never eaten it, but Eric says it tastes like “heaven on earth.” It’s a pale blobby mushroom that looks a bit like some oceanic organism. Or maybe a cartoon nose.

Eric and I petting a Lion's Mane mushroom.

Eric and I petting a Lion’s Mane mushroom.

Eric sells his harvest to area chefs, so if you’ve eaten a mushroom dish at a Bloomington restaurant, you may have sampled his wares.

He also offers cultivation workshops and consultations. In partnership with the Hoosier Mushroom Society and the state department of health, he’s developed a certification course for wild mushroom hunters, which would allow them to comply with regulations around selling their harvest.

Speaking of: Know any good morel hunting spots?

Neighborliness in a Soup

An email came into my inbox a few weeks ago announcing an initiative called City Suppers. The goal of the program—co-sponsored by City Gallery, Harrison Center for the Arts, and Indiana Humanities—was simply to promote neighborliness by way of soup. On a particular night, everyone citywide was encouraged to sign up to host their neighbors for a simple dinner.

Of course, I loved this idea.

As it turned out, my spouse and I had been talking about having a casual neighborhood get-together for a while. City Suppers gave us the impetus to actually do it—not to mention a deadline to get the house clean.

In my neck of the woods, we define “neighbor” rather loosely as “anyone else who lives in Irvington or thereabouts.” So we invited an assortment of folks—some from just around the corner and some from further afield.

Around our table

A few of those who gathered around our table

Some had never met each other, and others had known each other a long time. Ages ranged from 1 year old to “I’ll never tell.”

We gathered around our table for a convivial evening. I made minestrone and bought some locally made focaccia and cheese. (Everyone seemed terrifically happy with the soup, which we call “peasant food” at our house—nothing all that fancy, but hearty, economical, and flavorful.) Guests brought wine, salad, and desserts. Truly mouthwatering desserts.

But the tasty, nourishing meal was really just an excuse for conversation and connection.

Life can be a full plate most of the time. So full that it seems hard to find the time for this kind of thing. In our neighborhood we have often socialized around shared projects. It was a novel change of pace to connect over a meal instead of at a meeting or work party.

We enjoyed it so much that we’re making more peasant food tonight and having different neighbors over. We’ll go to Russia instead of Italy, with borscht, rye bread, and beer. (Incidentally I traded with another neighbor—my chili peppers for her beets—for the starring veggie of the borscht. Our version of the “cup of sugar.”)

And bonus: the house is still pretty clean. Not that that matters—I figure if we waited till the perfect time to have people over, it would never happen. So why not just do it?

How about you—what’s your favorite way to connect with your neighbors? Is there something you’d like to initiate with the people living near you, but have been putting off? Why not get it going? It could be just the thing to warm a chilly winter night.


Today I enjoyed time with two friends in two separate food-related endeavors. One of them crazy enough to get up early and go questing for a supposedly killer purslane haul. The other tenacious enough to spend several hours shredding produce in my kitchen to make two varieties of sauerkraut.

Two crocks of veggies are fermenting on my table right now.

A batch we made together another time.

A batch we made together another time.

The purslane was a little “gone by,” but we are salvaging it as chicken feed.

And in both cases, we had a great time together, reconnecting.

It made me think of something I just read in an e-newsletter from an eco-village called Dancing Rabbit.

Relearning harmony with the earth at this time in existence is a great undertaking, in a world where bug spray, Big Macs, smartphones, and petroleum are readily available.

Young Thoughtful

It is a great undertaking, I agree. Everything in our culture pulls in the opposite direction. But friends can ease the way. They make swimming upstream companionable.

What about you? In what ways do your friends join you in living a bit more lightly on the planet?

Now We’re Cooking…with Sunshine

We offered our solar cooking workshop last weekend to an enthusiastic “crowd” of 17. That’s the biggest group a Pogue’s Run Grocer class has ever attracted, so we were pleased.

Judy demonstrating how to make a lid for a box cooker.

Judy demonstrating how to make a lid for a box cooker.

Judy has developed a wooden model, but we’re still working out the kinks. So we focused the class on “the old workhorse,” our tried-and-true cardboard box cooker. We wanted to show that you can start cooking with sunshine using only cheap (or free!) materials.

Judy adapted the design out of our solar cookery bible, Cooking with Sunshine. And you can find DIY instructions online as well.

All it needs now is an arm to prop the reflector--and you can make this out of a wire hanger.

All it needs now is an arm to prop the reflector. You can make this out of a wire hanger.

One of the attendees, a firefighter, plans to make the box cooker at the firehouse. He has a big vegetable garden, and he brought us all kinds of herbs and veggies in thanks for the teaching. He was eager to try using up garden produce in all-day stews and soups.

And we discovered after the class was done that another of the attendees has already been experimenting with solar cooking quite a bit. He sent me this inspiring video, proving me wrong when I said, “No, you can’t solar cook in the winter, because the sun’s too low.” Check it out!

The company behind this innovative design is called Solar Clutch. Its mission is promoting solar cooking in high risk areas of the world. I hadn’t heard of Solar Clutch, but I’m proud to find my home state of Indiana producing such a company.

Perhaps solar cooking season doesn’t have to end on Sept. 15 after all!

A Field to Fork Market

“In Indiana, we can grow so much of our own food. We really could be sustainable now,” says Kevin Logan, MD. Though we can’t grow mangoes or bananas, he believes we could cultivate everything we need for regional self-sufficiency.

INgredients Field to Fork Market, a new shop he opened in partnership with wife Jacqueline and old friend Tom Wiles, is exerting influence on both supply and demand. To stimulate the market for good clean food, the deli demonstrates how to use local produce like bok choy and spaghetti squash. Meanwhile the proprietors are coordinating with the many farmers and producers capable of feeding our region, in anticipation of the 2014 growing season.

I had the pleasure of talking with the three of them when I wrote this Nuvo piece on the store. It’s located in a refurbished Taco Bell, and full of items grown or produced in Indiana.

Pie pumpkins and gourds from local farmers at INgredients.

Pie pumpkins and gourds from local farmers at INgredients.

“I feel like we’re going to have to get back to community,” Logan says. “And food choices are one way that we do that.”

The trio plan to hold classes on every stage of food growing, storing, cooking, and preserving, to help people gain garden knowhow and kitchen skills. Both fermenting and cheese making classes are in the offing.

All in all this shop is a great addition to community resilience efforts in my town.

Sharing Summer’s Abundance and Summer’s Work

You never know what might result from posting a request on Facebook. The other day I asked our neighborhood Facebook gardeners’ group if anyone would take my zucchini in exchange for peppers. Because really, how many zukes does one household need? This led to the idea of a veggie swap ‘n share. So I invited any interested gardeners to bring their surplus over yesterday for some trading.

Only a couple folks showed up, but it was just right, and no doubt more will come in the future.

Summer's abundance shared at the veggie swap.

Summer’s abundance shared at the veggie swap. (The eggs are a side deal.)

Julie brought heirloom tomatoes, the only thing she grows. I was thrilled to take some off her hands, since mine are ripening ever so slowly after initially falling prey to blossom end rot. Her cherry tomato variety is called Doctor and rivals my beloved Sungold for sweetness.

As the most ambitious gardener among us, Laura brought a slightly squirrel-chewed pumpkin that needed to be harvested because of an issue with the vine. She had also just picked yellow squash, collards, basil, and more lovely heirloom tomatoes, including a variety called Principe Borghese, reputed to be great for drying. (I’m happy to say these are in my dehydrator as we speak.)

Collards and basil straight from the garden.

Collards and basil straight from the garden.

I offered the aforementioned Zucchini Explosion, specifically a variety called Cordello, as well as some jalapenos and various herbs. Laura went home with catnip for her kitties (sorry Kitley and Maggie!), sage, and rosemary.

Funny how these things all work out and people go away happy to try something new. I think swapping could be habit-forming.

Clowning with Cabbage

Clowning with cabbage at last year’s kraut party

On a related note, last summer our kitchen was home base for group preserving efforts, loosely connected to our community garden. With polka music on Pandora, we shredded up several heads of cabbage and packed them in crocks at the Kraut Party.

Kraut Party Action

Kraut Party Action

Later in the season we switched the sound track to the Three Tenors and Andrea Bocelli at the Pesto Party.

And a couple of us got together to make a gazillion varieties of salsa as well, to share with the community at a Salsa Party.

When you try to cook and preserve seasonal produce, summer can be a crazy time, especially if some of the produce comes from your own garden. Most of us don’t live in the kind of multigenerational households that were the rule back in the day. So we don’t have the built-in helpers that our foremothers did. It can get lonesome, toiling away in your kitchen on your own.

So it’s been great fun to turn some of that work into social events.

There’s talk of another Pesto Party, and maybe even a group effort to “put up sweet corn,” as my people say. We can get a boatload of sweet corn from one of our many local growers and just go to town.

Hm. What musical genre would work for a Corn Party?

Forage Ahead!

Today I joined my friend Greg Monzel of Monzel Herbs on one of his terrific plant walks. The rain held off as we tramped the lanes and fields of Distelrath Farms, an urban farm and the source of my weekly CSA allotment.

As an herbalist, Greg focuses these guided tours on both edible and medicinal plants. After you’ve hung around with him for a little while, you get a new appreciation for the things people normally dig out of their gardens. It seems that everywhere under our feet, there’s nourishment and healing.

Greg teaches us about plantain and its many uses

Greg teaches us about plantain and its many uses

Plaintain, for example, is good for eczema, wounds, and other skin issues, while its seeds are a “poor man’s psyllium.” I doubt I have the patience to collect its seeds, but I like the idea of whipping up a bunch of leaves in the blender with olive oil to make an infusion. I have some off-and-on rashy stuff on my hands, so I might try that.

Amaranth, drought-tolerant and tasty

Amaranth, drought-tolerant and tasty

More tasty than the bitter plantain is amaranth. It is an amazingly hardy summer salad green as well as a source of protein-rich “grain” (actually the seeds).

I’ve never collected the seeds, but I adore amaranth as a green. My partner was introduced to it in Tanzania years ago. There it was called red root and sauteed in a dish called Sukuma Weeki.

When the drought hit us last year, amaranth didn’t even notice. So this year I bought amaranth seeds to plant for a steady and convenient supply. As soon as my lettuce is done–any day now–I’m sowing amaranth in preparation for a dryer, hotter July and August. I can almost taste that late summer salad of amaranth and purslane, a heat-loving succulent high in omega-3 fatty acids. Most people pull both as a weed.

Greg, by the way, says weeds are a state of mind. Many of the things we consider noxious weeds were actually brought here because of their usefulness. Now they populate areas where the soil has been disturbed, working as “succession plants” that naturally build soil fertility.

Knotweed, AKA smartweed

Knotweed, AKA smartweed

Here’s knotweed, for example, also known as smartweed. I remember seeing this pretty little bloom in my dad’s raspberry patch and wondering what it was. I learned today that it is in the buckwheat family. Its leaves and seeds are edible and loaded with resveratrol, a potent antioxidant.

And did you know that you can harvest the seeds of the ubiquitous clover and save them in a jar, for indoor sprouting at some later, leaner date? It’s mind-boggling to realize there is free food all around us, even in the city, that could potentially nourish us in good times and bad.

I’ve learned so much from Greg, starting when I interviewed him for an Edible Indy story on gathering wild foods. Though I’m not nearly as experienced as he is, next Friday, July 5, I’ll have a table on foraging at FoodCon IV, a fabulous event that attracts a thousand or more people every year. I’m beyond excited to be part of it.

Real Simple

Still wobbling through Staphland. So here is a bit I dusted off from the archives of Shawndra ravings, for your reading pleasure. Back to the couch.

Some years back this magazine Real Simple caught my eye in the checkout lane at Kroger. Its thickness approximated that of the phone book of the small town where I went to college. It was unlike me to put it in my cart, but I  was attracted by the silky cover, I suppose.

By Jim Clark, via Wikimedia Commons

By Jim Clark, via Wikimedia Commons

Because I remember that cover to this day. It was a tableau of succulent blueberries. Inside were “real simple” ideas for augmenting someone’s perfect life: Make blueberry tea cakes the size of dolly dishes for your brunch guests! Weave a wreath from wheat purchased at such-and-such online store! Festoon it with dried wildflowers you’ve sprayed with hairspray, for colors that last! And so on.

Not one project within those pages would do anything but complicate life. The crafts were Martha Stewart-level hard, the recipes were full of fussy ingredients, and the whole magazine was a waste of $4.95.

Hmph, I thought, I’ll show you real simple.

Call me crazy, but say “real simple” to me and I don’t think of spending oodles of time piping mint icing onto chocolate chip cupcakes. I don’t envision sewing clunky wooden beads onto the placket of my earth-toned Nehru shirt. I don’t have time for fussiness.

But I realize that what I do in the name of the simple life may seem a bit on the fussy side, to people with different priorities. I operate on the premise that the less money I need to live on, the wealthier I am. This leads me down some curious roads.

Here I am leaning way into a wild bramble, getting all scratched up to reach one more black raspberry for my little bucketful.

Or here I am washing onion skins and celery tops to save in a big Ziploc bag in the freezer, for a future stock-making escapade.

Or here I am standing over the stove on a 90-degree August day, stirring sugar into grape pulp—having picked the grapes from my neighbors’ fence—and waiting for the precise moment when it turns to jam, seemingly many sweaty hours later.

There are times I feel rather smug about my gardening and homesteading efforts. Like when homegrown produce turns into a meal made a soleil “for mere pennies!”

Other times, I just feel like a chump. Lugging buckets of water from here to there in 100-degree heat, for example, while my neighbors up the street lounge by their in-ground pool.

Remember that TV show featuring two famous-for-being-rich-and-famous young women who attempted to live among farm folk? It was called The Simple Life. The opener showed the starlets in overalls, with straw in their hair and dirt on their faces, looking aggrieved.

I guess the fun was in watching the high-class duo learn that the simple life ain’t easy. So true, even on my own modest homestead here in town.


Wouldn’t trade it for a slick magazine.