Backyard foraging: Dandelions are everywhere

What do you eat when you are stuck at home, and don’t want to chance going to the store for fresh vegetables? In these times when many people are afraid to leave their homes there is one plant you can find across North America and many places in the world.

Dandelion boardering the yard.
Dandelion bordering the yard.

Spring is a season of renewal and new beginnings(and new dangers this year).  All of the trees break out in bright green growth as the leaves unfurl from their winter sleep.  Ahh the joys of spring, I can go on and on about it.  It is by far my favorite time of the year.  One of the great things about spring is if you like to forage, or try some of the bounty of nature you can get many delicious greens.

The easiest one for anyone to find is what many people consider an annoying weed.  The common dandelion is the easiest of all edibles to find.  The plant is native to Eurasia, but was brought by settlers as a hardy green to grow and eat.  Dandelions are found on all of the worlds continents and have been gathered since prehistory, but the varieties cultivated for consumption are mainly native to Eurasia. Dandelions are a perennial plant, its leaves will grow back if any part of the tap root is left intact. To make leaves more palatable later in the later parts of the year they are often blanched to remove bitterness.  The bitterness is mostly in the leaves late in the growing season when water starts getting in short supply.  In the spring it is only mildly bitter and makes a great addition to salads.  I am actually thinking of growing them on purpose. Every part of the plant can be used for something.

The flower petals, along with other ingredients, are used to make dandelion wine. This is very very strong, but also very good. I have seen where the flowers can also be used to make a dye, but I have not had a chance to try that. The ground, roasted roots can be used as a caffeine-free dandelion coffee. I add mine to roasted chicory root for a tasty coffee alternative.   Dandelion was also traditionally used to make the traditional British soft drink dandelion and burdock, and is one of the ingredients of root beer. Also, Dandelions were once delicacies eaten by the Victorian gentry mostly in salads and sandwiches. Dandelions leaves contain abundant vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins A, C and K, and are good sources of calcium, potassium, iron and manganese.

They grow everywhere.  Even in the cracks in the walkway
They grow everywhere. Even in the cracks in the walkway

Roasted dandelion root is a simple thing to make if you are interested in trying to do it yourself.  First gather up a dozen or so plants with as much of the root attached as you can get.  The two-year old plant will have a nice large root on it.  Remember to save the leaves and any flowers for a nice salad or to add to a sandwich. Cut the individual roots into 1-inch sections and cover with water. White sap will leach from the roots causing the water to cloud. Agitate the roots with your hands to remove any remaining soil and to remove the sap. Pour off the water and repeat the process until the water is clear. If you skip this step you will have a much more bitter tea.  Process the roots in a food processor until they are coarsely chopped.  Spread a 1/2-inch layer of chopped dandelion roots on a cookie sheet, and set the oven at 250 degrees, leaving the oven door open a crack to allow moisture to evaporate. Roast the dandelion roots for 2 hours or until the roots are the color of coffee grounds. Stir the dandelion roots every 15 to 20 minutes to allow them to dry evenly. Remove from the oven when the roots are the color of ground coffee. Allow to cool and store in glass jars. You can further grind them with a coffee grinder, but if you don’t have one, that’s okay too, as they can be used as is.

Below are some great resource guides if you are interested in more on foraging for weeds and other edibles.

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Are Salal berries edible? Why yes they are!

As summer hits it’s midpoint it is time to get ready for late summer berries. One of my favorites to forage for locally is salal berries.  This native plant to the Pacific Northwest is usually seen in flower arrangements as decorating leaves. The leaves are thick and waxy and make a great color addition to flower arrangements everywhere.  This plant is also a relative of the blueberry and produces a delicious berry.  I eat it fresh and have used it to make wine and jam. The high pectine content of the berries does require some extra help to make a wine.  Otherwise it will almost gel like a jam.

Its dark blue “berries” (actually swollen sepals like a blueberry) and young leaves are both edible, and are an effective appetite suppressant. Salal berries were a significant food resource for native people, who both ate them fresh and dried them into cakes. They were also used as a sweetener, and the Haida used them to thicken salmon eggs. The leaves of the plant were also sometimes used to flavor fish soup. More recently, Salal berries are used locally in jams, preserves and pies.  They are often combined with Oregon-grape because the tartness of the latter is partially masked by the mild sweetness of Salal.  There is so much naturally occurring pectin in the berry that when you make jam you do not need to add any to make it jell up.  The jam is so dark that it is almost black in color.  

The berries grow in rows along a main stem.
The berries grow in rows along a main stem.

Salal occurs in such high numbers that the chance of seeing plants on a hike anywhere west of the Cascades in Oregon is almost guarantied. This year I intend to pick enough that I can try to make at least a gallon of wine out of them.  But even if I don’t they are a good addition to yogurt throughout the year if you freeze them.  Or a dark jam to add to yogurt.  Have I ever mentioned I love yogurt?  

The plants can be found from Northern California up into southeast Alaska.  If it is in the that area there is some around.  The flavor of the berry changes depending on the soil conditions.  If you find a spot where they taste great remember to go back year after year for them.  

Flowers and unripe berries
Flowers and a mix of ripe and unripe berries

The plant itself also has been used for medicinal purposes. Salal leaf has a long history as a medicine for wounds, coughs, colds and digestive problems.  The Klallam, Bella Coola and Quileute People have chewed salal leaves, and spit them on burns and sores.  The Samish and Swinomish People have used the leaves for coughs and tuberculosis, while the Quinault People have used them for diarrhea and flu-like symptoms.  Herbalist, Michael Moore mirrors Northwest Native People’s uses of salal in Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West when he says that, “The tea is astringent and anti-inflammatory, both locally to the throat and upper intestinal mucosa, and through the bloodstream, to the urinary tract, sinuses and lungs.” 

If you are ever in the mood to try a unique flavored berry I highly recommend salal as a delicious one.  As my normal word of warning if you are not 100% sure of what you are eating do not eat it!  

Some useful books on foraging and using medicinal herbs in the area:

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Yellow Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius)

One of the first mushrooms of the fall is the delicious Yellow Chanterelle. A week or two after the first heavy fall rain small little yellow buttons will start appearing throughout the forest. Since this time of year coincides with hunting season in Oregon it is best for anyone out in the forest picking mushrooms to be wearing bright colors so they are not mistaken for a deer. This has always been one of my personal favorite mushrooms to look for, and is one of the easiest to find. But with every mushroom unless you are 100% certain of what you are picking DO NOT EAT IT! Now for a little about this treasure of the forest.

Since I love using Wikipedia for info here is a little bit of history and uses for this tasty treat:

“Though records of chanterelles being eaten date back to the 1500’s, they first gained widespread recognition as a culinary delicacy with the spreading influence of French cuisine in the 1700’s, where they began appearing in palace kitchens. For many years, they remained notable for being served at the tables of nobility. Nowadays, the usage of chanterelles in the kitchen is common throughout Europe and North America. In 1836, the Swedish mycologist Elias Fries considered the chanterelle “as one of the most important and best edible mushrooms.”

Chanterelles as a group are generally described as being rich in flavor, with a distinctive taste and aroma difficult to characterize. Some species have a fruity odor, others a more woody, earthy fragrance, and others still can even be considered spicy. The golden chanterelle is perhaps the most sought-after and flavorful chanterelle, and many chefs consider it on the same short list of gourmet fungi as truffles and morels. It therefore tends to command a high price in both restaurants and specialty store.”

Over the years I have dried, canned, pickled, and sautéed chanterelles in as many recipes as I can. Other mushrooms might be stronger flavored or different tasting, but this one is the easiest to find in large quantities. There are always several small stands of mushroom buyers around that will pay by the pound for these if you want to put in the time to find large amounts. The only thing about selling them that I never liked is that there is a subspecies of chanterelle that are white that the buyers will never take. I can’t tell any difference in taste between the two so that means more for me to enjoy. On a successful day I have found 20+ lbs of yellow chanterelles with only a few hours of searching.

When picking a patch of chanterelles it is best to cut them off at the base with a sharp knife. Pulling them out of the ground can damage the fungal matt that is under the ground. By cutting them you can get several crops out of the same location until the first hard frost hits under the forest canopy. Also alway remember to leave a few mushrooms in a patch so that they can continue to reproduce and produce even more in the years ahead.

For more detailed information please check out this link to the full Wikipedia article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chanterelle

Some of my favorite recipes:

Some great reference books:

All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms by David Arora (smaller pocket guide that is excellent to use)

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms (National Audubon Society Field Guides) (all inclusive but fairly large)

There are also several E-books that can be found on Kindle unlimited

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Oregon’s invasive Purple Varnish clam

When camping for my birthday on the Oregon coast, I found a nice area that had a very large bed of Purple varnish clams.  What is a purple varnish clam you ask? It is a clam that was first found invading Oregon’s estuary’s in the 1990’s.  The assumption is that it came over in the ballast water of large ships from Asia.  While this clam is an invasive species it is also a very easy one to dig, and the current regulations allow for up to 72 per digger to be harvested. Some studies have shown that this clam able to produce densities exceeding 800 per square meter I don’t think that they are going to get over harvested. Since these clams are high in the inter-tidal zone and in soft sand my toddler was easily able to help me dig these up.  And surprisingly once we cooked them up she wanted to eat all of them.

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A quick limit of clams on a not very low tide

Kayla and I were able to get our limit in less than 30 minutes.  The deepest clam we found was only maybe 12 inches down in the sand.  The area we dug for them was a three foot by three foot section.  It seemed easiest to dig a small hole until you got to the depth they were at then just use your hands to start digging the hole wider.  The shells can be a little sharp so a pair of garden gloves help prevent any cut fingertips.  After the clams are dug you have to let them soak in seawater for 24 hours so the clams expel out the sand they have inside them.  We steamed some up before we realized that, and it was almost as much sand as clam inside them.  All you need to do is fill a bucket up with bay water and put the clams inside so the water is over all of them.  After the soak we steamed and dipped in garlic butter and they were delicious.  Just like steamer clams but a little bit sweeter.  They would probably make a great clam chowder. Which I will try at some point when I have time to make it.

My helper and her clam. They are not a very big clams, but are great eating.
My helper and her clam. They are not a very big clams, but are great eating.

One thing to note for anyone eating these is that many of them have pea crabs inside of them.  If you are allergic to crabs these would be a bad clam to harvest to eat.  A good book to read if you are interested in clamming in Oregon is this book of Clamming the Pacific Northwest or some recipes on how to cook them The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook: Salmon, Crab, Oysters, and More  the cookbook doesn’t have anything specific to the Purple varnish clam but any steamer type recipe will work for them.

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Slow cooker pacific mussels and sausage chowder

There are many types of chowder in the world and even more variations of chowder recipes. Over the centuries if it is from the ocean then some one has probably made chowder out of it. After my last trip to the coast to forage I didn’t get any clams but I did get a nice bucket of fresh mussels. Which make a perfect chowder. The only thing that tends to throw people off about using mussels is that instead of the normal white of clams these are an orange color. Using a slow cooker for this makes the mussels nice and tender and delicious.

Tasty bowl of chowder with mussels and sausage.
Tasty bowl of chowder with mussels and sausage.

ingredients:

  • 8 oz chopped mussels
  • 4 sliced chicken sausages
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 6 to 8 medium potatoes
  • 3 c. water
  • 3 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
  • 4 c. half and half cream or milk
  • 3 to 4 tbsp. cornstarch or (instant potatoes)

If you are using fresh mussels like I am you will need to steam them open and then cut them up. Also be careful of the occasional pearl. All of the ones that I have found were small but they would still have chipped a tooth. Cut the mussels into bite-sized pieces after removing them from the shell if they are large. In a skillet, saute sausage and onion until golden brown; drain. Put into slow cooker with mussels. Add all remaining ingredients, except milk and cornstarch. Cover and cook on high 3 to 4 hours or until vegetables are tender. During the last hour of cooking, combine 1 cup of milk with the cornstarch. Add cornstarch mixture and the remaining milk and stir well; heat through.

A link to my handy slowcooker

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Garlic mussels with Yakisoba noodles

Tasty and healthy stir fry of mussels, bok choy, and noodles.
Tasty and healthy stir fry of mussels, bok choy, and noodles.

Once more I have a nice amount of wild harvested mussels to something with.  These are a different type than the bay mussels I harvested last time.  These are the California mussels that live along rocky outcrops all over any rocky habitat throughout the Oregon coast.  And I found a bonus in these mussels.  There were several small pearls that I found while cleaning them.

Lots of mini pearls that were embedded in the mussels.
Lots of mini pearls that were embedded in the mussels.

They are not very big, but it was fun to find them.  For this batch of mussels I am going to stir fry them with some veggies and Yakisoba noodles.  Stir frying is a very quick and easy way to make a quick meal.  The noodles are already cooked so they just need to be warmed up.

Ingredients:

  • 1 package of yakisoba noodles
  • 2 cups fresh bok choy
  • 1 cup bean sprouts
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 8 oz cooked and shelled mussels
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil or oil of choice
  1. Saute the garlic in the oil until it just starts to change color
  2. Add in the bok choy and bean sprouts and cook for 2-5 minutes at medium heat or until they are almost cooked
  3. Add in the yakisoba noodles and mussels, then cook until heated completely.  This usually only takes a couple minutes
  4. At this point you can add in any sauce that you like for flavoring.  I am just adding a light soy sauce to the mix.

Mussels with pesto

Mussels and pesto blending together
Mussels and pesto blending together

Yesterday day was a great day of fun and sun at the beach.  And the perfect low tide to pick a limit of bay mussels of the jetty.  The only thing about getting mussels off the jetty is that they tend to be on the small size.  The largest one that I found was about 4 inches.  The average was just over 2 inches.  With all these delicious mussels I decided that mixing them in with some pesto would make for a great dinner tonight.  That and it’s a very simple recipe.  This will make two servings

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 lb cooked and shelled mussels
  • 2 ounces pesto
  • 4 ounces dried pasta of choice

Cook up your pasta as per directions and drain.  While the pasta is cooking warm up the mussels with the pesto in a large saute pan.  add the cooked pasta to the pan and toss to coat the noodles evenly with the pesto.  pour into bowls and enjoy.

All blended into a bowl of delicious delights
All blended into a bowl of delicious delights

Lobster mushrooms

Strange looking mushroom but very tasty.
Strange looking mushroom but very tasty.

While wandering around the woods for chanterelles we came across several Lobster mushrooms.  Why is it called a lobster mushroom you ask?  It is because it is the color of a cooked lobster with the faint taste of seafood when you eat it.  A lobster mushroom is not truly a mushroom, but is a parasitic ascomycete that grows on mushrooms, turning them a reddish-orange color that resembles the outer shell of a cooked lobster. It colonizes members of the genera Lactarius (Milk-caps) and Russula, such as Russula brevipes and Lactarius piperatus in North America. At maturity,it completely covers its host mushroom, rendering it unidentifiable. Lobster mushrooms are widely eaten and enjoyed; they are commercially marketed and are commonly found in some large grocery stores ( I have never seen them sold anywhere around here though). They have a seafood-like flavor and a firm, dense texture. According to some, they may taste somewhat spicy if the host mushroom is an acrid Lactarius.  Even though the outer part is red the interior is a dense hard white color.  unfortunately the ones that I found were too old to eat and had already started to have bugs eat them.  But it is nice to find them so I can go back to the same location and look for them again.

Lobster mushrooms have a velvety texture when sautéed, not unlike cooked lobster, and their succulent meat hints pleasantly at seafood. Processing one can be a chore: Lobster mushrooms collect more than their share of dirt on a cap riddled with nooks and crannies. Don’t be afraid to scrub them hard, and then dice them up and saute with a little butter, cream and cognac to make a colorful duxelles.

Lobster mushroom just breaking the surface of the forest floor
Lobster mushroom just breaking the surface of the forest floor

Baked chanterelles served over rice or pasta

It is that time of year again where the mushrooms in Oregon go into overdrive and cover the forest floor with delicious mushrooms and deadly ones.  Usually when I find chanterelles my first thought is to season them with butter and herbs and saute them.  As good as they taste I plan on doing more light and healthy recipes this year with them.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb chanterelles chopped up
  • 1/2 onion coarsely chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 lb cooked turkey (leftovers from last night)
  • 1/4 cup rich chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup 2% milk (in place of heavy cream)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Arrange the chanterelles in a lightly oiled casserole dish or dutch oven. Cover with the chopped onion, turkey, and garlic. Cover the dish and bake in a preheated 350º oven for 20 minutes.

second batch of chanterelles of teh season
second batch of chanterelles of the season

Remove the cover, add the broth and milk or cream, and continue to bake without the cover for another 15 minutes. Do not allow it to boil after milk/cream is added. Adjust the flavor by adding salt and pepper. Serve over rice or pasta.

Baked chanterelles over chow mein noodles
Baked chanterelles over chow mein noodles

Foraging for Acorns

I have always wondered what acorns tasted like.  It seems that everywhere you look in the Willamette valley you see oaks trees.  Which is a remanent of the oak savanna that used to exist across the valley years ago.  The most common one in the area is the Oregon white oak.  During my daily lunch walks at work I pass several oaks that are loaded this year with acorns.  On a good year a mature oak can have close to 2000 pounds of acorns on it.  I havent seen any with close to that many on them this year.  So with my handy bucket I picked up a couple of gallons of acorns to experiment with and see how they taste, and how long it takes to process them to eat.  Acorns are high in tannin and cannot be eaten in their raw form.  The tannin makes them very bitter and if you eat them it will bind with proteins and make you constipated.  Which is also why if you get diarrhea while out in the woods you can make a quick up of hot acorn tea and it will bind you back up.

The first you need to do while gathering acorns is to make sure you don’t pick up any with little holes in them.  The holes are caused by the acorn weevil grub.  This hole is not caused by it getting into the nut it is caused by them boring out from the inside.  By the time they get through the shell they have eaten almost the entire nut.  After you have gathered them fill up the bucket with water and remove any that float.  These are the ones that the grub has not broken through on yet.  It will save you from having to open them and then tossing them out. After you have sorted your acorns you can either dry them in the oven at as low a setting as it will do or put them in a dehydrator.  I put mine in the dehydrater at 120 F for 3 days.  This accomplishes two things, the first dry the nut, and the second kills any eggs or grubs that might be inside the nut.  Out of the gallon nuts I have cracked open I only saw three with grubs in them.

There are two main methods for leaching out the tannin that I found after doing a little research.  Well methods that are used today anyway.  There are many ways that have been used by cultures all over the world to leach out the tannin.  The first method is to leach out the tannin in cold water.  Grind up the nuts and put them in a jar with twice the amount of water as you have nuts.  Each day pour off the colored water and refill with clean water.  Depending on the type of acorn that you have will determine the level of tannin in the nut.  The white oak have low tannin levels so will only require 3-5 days to leach out the tannin.  take a pinch of ground nut and taste it to see if it is ready.  You will get a slight bitter taste at first then it will be a bit bland to sweet.  Pour the water and nuts into a cloth lined colander and drain off all the water. After you get all the water out you can dry it out in the oven or a dehydrator.  This method will give you a flour that will bind together and will work great in breads (I have yet to try this)

The second method is to boil the tannin out of the nuts.  This involves using two pots of boiling water to leach out the tannin.  If you put the acorns in cold water at any time after starting the boil it will lock in the tannin and you will never be able to get them out. Bring both pots of water to a boil and add your acorns to one of them.  Boil for 10-15 minutes and drain.  Then pour the acorns into the other pot of boiling water.  Then refill the first pot and bring it back to a boil.  Repeat until you can taste an acorn and don’t taste any more bitterness from the tannin.  For the white oak acorns I had pick it took 4 changes of water to get them to the point that they didn’t taste bitter. Kinda taste like boiled peanuts at this point.  Drain off the water from the last boil and then dry the nuts either in the oven on low or in a dehydrator.  After being dried my acorns were very hard and not really a nut you could just grab a handful and eat.

The first thing i made with my acorns was a batch of trail bars.  I replaced the hazelnuts I normally use for some coarsely ground acorns.  They gave it a different flavor and more of a crunch then the normal.  Once I run the course ground nuts through the coffee grinder I am going to try some in a batch bread and see how they taste.  Homemade bread sounds good anyway.

Shelled raw acorns before they are processed
Shelled raw acorns before they are processed

First boil less then a minute after I dropped the acorns into the water.  The water was almost black.  I saved the water from the first boil to put on my poison oak to dry up the blisters
First boil less than a minute after I dropped the acorns into the water. The water was almost black. I saved the water from the first boil to put on my poison oak to dry up the blisters

Acorns after all the tanning is leached out of them
Acorns after all the tanning is leached out of them

Dried acorns in the grinder getting ready to get a nice course grind
Dried acorns in the grinder getting ready to get a nice coarse grind

ground acorns
Course grind of the acorns made them about the same size as corn grits. For a fine flour they just need to be ran through a coffee grinder