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Archive for the ‘Food and other Culinary Adventures’ Category

A Jar of Green Herb!

A Jar of Green Herb!

I know what you are thinking, and sadly the jar filled with green herb is not legalized marijuana!  While Minnesota is making strides with the legalization of medical marijuana we are still aways from legalized recreational use.  Yes, someday I hope to write an article espousing the benefits (which there are many) of both medical and recreational cannabis, but this short article is about a very different plant altogether.

 

As I have written about many times before, we grow a diverse array of plants throughout our extensive gardens.  Some of them are fairly uncommon perennials, fruiting shrubs, and vines and others are very common plants found throughout many gardens.  Its fun having so much diversity, but it is even better when you find a new use for something as simple and common as celery.

 

We have grown celery, Apium graveolens for years now.  Typically we have always harvested the ribs for use in soups, stews, salads and roasted vegetables, and have used the leaves as an addition to soup stock.  This last summer however, I dried the leaves as a means of preservation.  And that is the green herb in the jar, dried celery leaves!

 

The dried leaf of celery has an aroma and taste very similar to when it is fresh, but it is deeper and more earthy as well.  This winter I have used it in much of my cooking.  It is a great addition to any soup or stew, I have added it to bread dough when I make an herbed loaf, when making rubs for meats it works very nicely with all the other herbs and spices that are found on my spice rack, it adds a depth to veggie dip, and is a great all around herb that I am excited to have available.

 

PreservingFoodCoverI came across the idea for drying celery leaf in the book Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning.  It documents many of the traditional food preservation techniques found throughout France.  From lacto fermentation to drying, and the use of oils, salt, sugars, and alcohol in preserving food, it has many great ideas on preserving the surplus harvest from your garden.

 

Its also a fun book, because it so simply illustrates the depth and tradition that is found in European cuisine.  Not only do they know how to use all parts of the celery plant, but there are recipes for black currant jam with honey, lemons preserved in salt, lacto fermented veggies, and cherries soaked in brandy.

 

This spring as you begin to plan and plant your gardens keep in mind that there are many ways of preserving the harvest.  Some of these ideas won’t be new to you, but others may revolutionize how or what you grow!  You may have a treasure just waiting for you that has always been there, and maybe it will look good being kept in a jar!  Peace and Cheers!

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Here is a McIntosh apple, a beauty to behold!

Here is a McIntosh apple, a beauty to behold!

Editors note – Since the publication of this essay, there has been a little debate on the NAFEX facebook page as to what the true identity of this apple actually is.  I have never claimed to be an expert, and it is totally possible that the ID that I claim is incorrect.  I bring this up in the spirit of learning, if someone has a better idea than mine and it is backed up with decent evidence, I am all ears!  Regardless of what the true name for this apple is, I feel this is still a strong essay that can stand on its on.  Enjoy…

A reoccuring theme here on Autonomy Acres is food, a lot of the time specifically about fruit.  Fruit trees, fruit shrubs, growing and foraging fruit, and eating fruit have all been topics covered here over the last four years.  Its a favorite subject of mine for good reason, I love fruit!  Growing it, eating it, learning about it, cooking with it,  you name it, fruit is one of my passions.  Especially apples!

 

Nothing compares to a tree ripened apple on a cool autumn day.  They signal the finished accumulation of solar energy, the life of the soil, and the water from rain into a near perfect orb that holds the sweetness of summer within its flesh.  They are the inspiration for poetry and legends, and for so many years have played a part in the stories and traditions of cultures from around the cool, temperate climates of the world.

 

It wasn’t that long ago when every region in the world where apples could and did grow had its own locally adapted varieties.  Many of these varieties were used solely for culinary uses or cider and were rarely eaten out of hand and remained nameless, wild apple trees living on the edges of forests and in the hedgerows between fields.

 

But many of them contained desirable traits and magic that enchanted us – a superb taste, or great storage capabilities, or one that made a particularly smooth cider.  Some are just plain gorgeous, or ugly for that matter, but any of these apples that have called to us, have been named, and shared, and sometimes have even become famous.

 

Presently in 2014 there are roughly 7,500 named varieties of apples grown throughout the world, but it is thought that at one time (probably not all that long ago), there could have been well over 10-12,000 distinct varieties being cultivated worldwide.  But with the steady march of progress and the ever increasing trend towards a global monoculture, much of our collective apple heritage has been lost to the bulldozer, the suburbs, and the destruction of our traditional food systems.

 

While much of our great wealth of apple diversity still exists,  it is scattered and gets harder to find with each passing season.  The global, industrial cultivation of apples now relies on just 15 varieties for the bulk of its production.  How sad it is to have lost so many unique apples (and the land upon which they grew) in favor of a handful of apples that are easy to harvest and ship, and oftentimes resemble wet cardboard in  texture and taste.

 

There is an apple tree a couple miles from my house that I have been visiting now for the last few years.  It has been a reliable producer with apples that are hardly troubled by pests or disease.  They have tended to be a medium to large apple, but occasionally I will find one that is just huge!

 

This year I got to the apple tree far later than I ever have and realized that I had been picking this apple a bit too early.  This year I didn’t harvest until the middle of October, and because of this later harvest, these apples were really ready to be picked and had fully ripened on the tree.

 

Do you see a graft line?  If so, let me know...

Do you see a graft line? If so, let me know…

What I was really interested in was if I could find a graft line anywhere on the trunk.   While there is nothing discernible that indicates where the graft union may be (it was probably buried when planted, or slowly covered by the accumulation of mulch and leaves), I am pretty sure that this is a grafted, McIntosh apple tree.  Eating it this time of year, versus last year when I harvested them early in September, changed the flavor profile quite a bit, and it became evident that this was an apple that most of us have had at some point in our lives.

 

It has a noticeable thicker skin, a white to somewhat yellowish flesh that is far from crisp, but is definitely not mealy either, a small short stem, and is easily bruised when dropped.  The fruit tends to have a uniformly deep red color to it, that is splashed with small streaks of green.  It is not overly juicy or sweet, but has a nice, subtle acidic bite to it that makes it fine apple for eating fresh.  It cooked down to an almost perfectly smooth apple butter that only needed a bit of pureeing at the end.

 

All of those characteristics when compared to other descriptions of McIntosh (see here, and here) seem to be a fairly good match.  McIntosh started its journey in Canada back in 1850 and went onto to become a very popular apple for cultivation throughout Western Canada down into New England, and the upper midwest (where I live).  It is a large spreading tree, that tends to have reliable harvests, and at least the one I am harvesting from seems to be fairly resistant to some of the more common pests and diseases around here.

 

Honestly it is not the greatest apple I have ever eaten, but it is still pretty good.  Just for the fact that this is a big mature tree that is easy to harvest from, and also produces high quality fruit, and lots of it, makes me glad that this tree is in my neighborhood.  The fact that this tree is also in a spot that is very easy to access doesn’t hurt either.  This tree is a relic from when this area was still farms and orchards and I can only imagine that this McIntosh tree is in its twilight years.

 

Before I came to the conclusion that this tree is a McIntosh, last year I collected scion wood from it and grafted it onto one of my !Frankentrees!  At the time of grafting, I was calling it Crusader because of a landmark closeby, but it is now looking like I will have to get a new tag made up for that branch.

 

Mcintoshharvest

Here’s the Harvest!

The fact that this apple tree is a fairly common variety, doesn’t lessen its value as a tree or for what it can provide for one who cares for it. Moreover, the bounty and the knowledge I have gleaned from this tree are invaluable.  I love free food, and I also love the chance to learn something new, and this tree has provided both.   I admit that it would be fun to find and identify a tree that is more of a rarity than a McIntosh, but the fact that I am pretty certain about my identification means that my observations and research are maturing and starting to pay off!

 

Sadly it is getting harder to find old trees whether they are a rare variety or not.  The continued suburban expansion proceeds with the same vigour as late stage cancer, and it is not only old apple trees that perish and are lost to history, but many other forms of biological diversity are

threatened from this unceasing onslaught.

 

We may not be able stop the majority of this destruction, but we can be stewards to what is left.  We can educate our communities on the importance of fruit and nut trees, we can seek out and help preserve the genetics of threatened species and varieties,  and we can also start planting as many trees as we can on whatever land is available to us.  Trees are one way of investing in the future, so lets make our great grandkids proud and leave them something positive to remember us by.  Peace & Cheers…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Beautiful Velvet Feet growing out of log, look at the snow still on the ground!  Mushrooms in March!

Beautiful Velvet Feet growing out of log, look at the snow still on the ground! Mushrooms in March!

A lot of things happened around here this summer.  Some awesome, some not so much.  Somethings came from habit, and some from adventure.  Happiness, sadness, anger, laughter and a universe of other feelings ebbed and flowed in and out of existence as we lived our lives.  It rained and then poured, and then dried up.  Its raining right now as I write, and the world readies itself for sleep as winter looms close on the horizon.

 

Morels, growing out of the forest floor

Morels, growing out of the forest floor

But thinking back to this spring, a wet one that made the history books, the first thing that really comes to mind are the first morel mushrooms of the season.  I have written before about my forays out into the woods in the early spring, usually around mother’s day, looking for the treasured mushroom.  And this year once again, I was lucky to find some.  I have hunted the woods every spring now for more than 10 years, and I have never been disappointed.  I don’t usually ever find too many, but sometimes I get lucky, or at least know somebody who does so I get a few good meals with the morels.

 

The beehive mushrooms...

The beehive mushrooms…

The morel mushroom may be one of the most treasured and sought after culinary mushrooms around, but there are thousands of other varieties of fungi just waiting to tell you their story.  And that was one of my goals and accomplishments for this summer, to learn the stories and tales of as many mushrooms as I could. So when I came across these ones growing out of the straw under my backyard beehives early in the summer, I knew the hunt was on.

 

Chanterelles!

Chanterelles!

There were two mushrooms specifically that I wanted to find and learn about.  For many years now, I have heard about and researched both Chicken of the Woods and Chanterelles but have never found them.  I knew for a fact that the Chickens, also known as Sulphur Shelf mushrooms, were a common late summer mushroom that was very easy to ID.  I also knew that chanterelles grow throughout Minnesota, but had never met anybody who had actually found them.   My mission was set before me, all I had to do was start.

 

Beginning at the end of July, the kids and I went on hikes about every other day.  After a month of no rain, we finally had gotten a few small storms that moistened the landscape and all sorts of fungus began popping up in our yard and throughout the neighborhood.  We didn’t always go out with the intention of hunting down mushrooms, but we always kept our eyes open, and more times than not some type of fungus would cross our path.

 

Chickens!!

Chickens!!

One park in particular proved to harbor high levels of mycological life, and it was here that we concentrated our efforts in finding the Chicken of the Woods and the elusive Chanterelles.  The key feature to this land that I think helps support such an abundant and diverse web of fungal life can be attributed to all of the oak trees that can be found throughout the park and hiking trail system.  And not just the living oaks, but ones in all stages of rot and decay.

 

Baaawwwkkk!

Baaawwwkkk!

It didn’t take long to find either mushroom.  The Chicken came first in this story.  Growing off of an old oak log, was a gorgeous Chicken of the Woods, specifically, Laetiporus cincinnatus.  Chicken of the Woods or Sulphur Shelf mushroom comprise a few different varieties of Laetiporus, the most popular being cincinnatus and sulphureus, which are virtually identical to the untrained eye, though connoisseurs say that cinncinnatus is superior for eating.  I have since found both of them, and both are delectable, and truly taste like chicken when sauteed in butter.  They are what many field guides consider choice eating, and are quite possibly the best mushrooms I have ever eaten!

 

Golden Chanterelles

Golden Chanterelles

 

Not long after finding the Chickens, we found our first Chanterelles on a forested valley ridge.  Chanterelles being a mycorrhizal fungus (a fungus that has evolved a symbiotic relationship with the roots of trees) were also found near living oak trees.  The Chanterelle is a very elegant looking mushroom, with a very distinct apricot aroma.  Lacking true gills, a Chanterelle can be identified by it’s ridges which display a forking pattern, rather than the parallel nature of mushrooms with true gills.  The Golden Chanterelle, which is probably the most common species in the genus Cantharellus, does have a deadly look alike commonly known as a Jack ‘O Lanterns (Omphalotus olearius).  But once you become acquainted with the defining features and growth habit, they are easily told apart.  In fact, I have never even seen Jacks, but I have heard that you should hunt them at night, because they glow in the dark!

 

hen of the woodsA dark horse candidate who takes 3rd place this year in the fungi challenge is what is known as Hen of the Woods.  Another mushroom named after poultry, Grifola frondosa, is another mushroom that shows up in late summer in hardwood forests, often found at the base of oak trees.  This is another mushroom that I had only ever heard about and never seen, but was pretty sure that I would know it when it found me.

 

Happy Fungal Hunters!

Happy Fungal Hunters!

On a beautiful September day hiking with a group of happy fungus hunters, we found two massive specimens of Hen of the Woods!  It is a gorgeous and crazy bracted mushroom that also goes by the name Cauliflower mushroom.  They are great eating, and when you find Grifola frondosa, you will have a lot of mushroom to cook with, so get ready to be creative.  Soups, omelets, casseroles, and pizzas are all good candidates for this fungus!

 

This is a Bear's Head Lion's Mane mushroom, Hericium americanum

This is a Bear’s Head Lion’s Mane mushroom, Hericium americanum

The same mushroom foray that yielded us the Hen of the Woods, was also one of the most epic mushroom hunts I have ever led or been a part of.  Located in an enchanted forest that is perched on sandstone cliffs, and is filled with mossy ravines and boulders that glaciers deposited roughly 10,000  or so years ago, this magical piece of land was teeming with mycological wonders.

 

WTF!

WTF!

We found, fell in love, and grew ever closer to mushrooms that day.  Along with the Hen, we also found a mediocre Chicken, a very nice score of near perfect Chanterelles, and many more mushrooms.  Some were known from previous hunts and research, others  we were able to ID with field guides, and some remain a mystery …

Old Man of the Woods, Strobilomyces floccopus?

Old Man of the Woods, Strobilomyces floccopus?

Who knows?

Who knows?

Milkcaps?

Milkcaps?

This maybe a psychedelic mushroom growing off of an old wooden shelf by my chicken coop....

This maybe a psychedelic mushroom growing off of an old wooden shelf by my chicken coop….

In closing, I can more than say that I accomplished my mycological goals for this summer.  Not only did I find and learn how to ID both Chicken of the Woods and Chanterelles, I also learned  about Hen of the Woods, Dryad’s Saddle, King Strophia, Northern Tooth, a small variety of boletes, and many other mushrooms.

 

Dryad's Saddle, Pheasant Back, or Polyporus squamosus

Dryad’s Saddle, Pheasant Back, or Polyporus squamosus

While I feel like I know more about mushrooms than most people, I still have a lot to learn.  I am an amatuer mycologist, self taught, and definitely am not an expert.  Even though I like to share my stories and experiences about and with mushrooms, I cannot stress enough how important it is for you to do your own research on mushrooms.

 

This is a King Stropharia, or also known as a wine cap.  This mushroom was intentionally "planted" in these wood chips and is highly edible.

This is a King Stropharia, or also known as a wine cap. This mushroom was intentionally “planted” in these wood chips and is highly edible.

Never eat a mushroom that you haven’t made a positive ID on.  Always double and triple check a new find.  Never eat too much of a new mushroom, and try to keep a fresh specimen available for at least 48 hours.  Learn how to do spore prints.  And most importantly, do not feel obligated to take mushrooms just because you can.  It is okay to leave them in place and let them live out their lives and spread their spores so a future generation of mushrooms can keep the mycelium running.  Peace and cheers…

 

 

Amanita muscaria

Amanita muscaria

Boletes found in a local park...

Boletes found in a local park…

WTF!

WTF!

A mushroom snowman?

A mushroom snowman?

Northern Tooth,  Climacodon septentrionale

Northern Tooth,
Climacodon septentrionale

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Here are the apples - L-R - Rubinette, Baker's Square, Golden Delicious, Steele Red, Wickson, Goldrush, Library, Honey Gold, Haralson

Here are the apples – L-R – Rubinette, Baker’s Square, Golden Delicious, Steele Red, Wickson, Goldrush, Library, Honey Gold, Haralson

2013 saw a lot of successful gardening and foraging projects, and none were quite as fun to participate in as the apple harvest has been.  Not only did one of our trees begin to reach its full potential this year (the Haralson), we also added close to 25 new varieties to our ever growing (but still small urban orchard), harvested multiple varieties from Son of !Frankentree! and located a few other nice neighborhood trees to forage from.

 

From our local bounty we have been eating fresh apples for the last month (and I suspect for at least the next few months to come), are in the process of fermenting about three and a half gallons of cider, have made a decent sized batch of spicy apple chutney, and have began to experiment with drying apple slices.  The limiting factor so far in our apple projects has not been a lack of produce to work with, but with not enough time in the day to do everything we would like to try.

 

While most of our trees are still very young, a few of the original ones that we planted well over five years ago are beginning to enter their early prime.  The Haralson was the highlight this year.  The tree was packed with apples early on, and after an initial thinning out of the fruit, we  saw a nice harvest in early September.  Most of the apples were in pretty good shape, but there was some internal damage on some of them that was most likely caused by the plum currcilio.

 

Our Rubinette and HoneyCrisp, both about the same age as the Haralson, were much more disappointing.  While it seemed early on that the fruit set was going to be great, we ended up losing many apples. The few that made it to harvest were quite ugly and riddled with pest damage, though we did find a small number to at least taste.

 

Bad years are going to occur no matter how much we fight against pest invasion and disease, but it also shows that we have a lot to learn as far as orchard upkeep, maintenance, and overall orchard health is concerned.  I have two books that I always come back to when I have a question about fruit tree health and orchard care.  The Holistic Orchard and The Apple Grower are both written by Michael Phillips who is on the cutting edge of organic orchard practices and Integrated Pest Management techniques.

 

The perfect inside of a Baker's Square apple ...

The perfect inside of a Baker’s Square apple …

I have made great strides and improvements in grafting skills, tree planting, pruning, and mulching techniques, but I suspect it will take me the rest of my life to get to a place where I can grow high quality apples on a yearly basis.  Ultimately my goal is not the perfect apple, but one that is grown under organic conditions, that keeps pest damage under control and aims to eliminate fungal and bacterial pathogens through probiotic, natural treatments throughout the season.  That is a tall order of chores, but one that can be accomplished if given the time, energy, and homework dedicated towards this project.

 

I could keep going on about pests and diseases, organic growing techniques, or about all the different culinary projects you could start using apples, but instead I am going to share with you the best part of this years apple adventure!  The results from the First Annual Gathering of the Autonomous Apple Tasters Collective are in!

 

While I am just having a little fun with the name, we did put on a small family tasting this year and it was a lot of fun.  As Son of !Frankentree! matures (along with all the other trees), there is a likely possibility that we could have upwards of 40 distinct varieties to sample sometime in the next few years.  This years panel is myself, my wife Karyn, and our two kids – Owen (8) and Freya (5).  Comments by the taster and what they thought about the apples they sampled are their opinion only.  Autonomy Acres will not be held liable for any disagreements or slander caused by, for, or against the aforementioned apples grown and foraged for this tasting.  Arguments between apple lovers and their significant others is their own business and shall remain that way.  Any comments, concerns, or corrections please contact the editor … Peace & Cheers

 

Results from the First Annual Autonomous Apple Tasters Collective

 

Rubinette – Rubinette is an apple bred in Switzerland in the 1950s.  A cross of Cox’s Orange Pippin and Golden Delicious, Rubinette is considered one of the finest apples in the world.  A smaller apple that is slightly orange with splashes of yellow and red.  Ours were heavily damaged this year, and the kids called them ugly and slightly bumpy.  Owen described his first bite as sweet and gritty.  Karyn said overripe and mealy.  Freya thought they were tart, and I thought they had an underlying sweetness with a mealy mouth feel.  This years Rubinette pales in comparison to one we had last year, but I am hopeful that in the years to come we will once again taste this apple in all its glory.

 

Baker’s Square – Baker’s Square is one of the apple trees that we forage from.  It is named after the place where it lives, on the boulevard outside of a restaurant here in town.    We ended up collecting close to two produce boxes filled with these apples.  Cosmetically the Baker’s Square apples were nearly perfect.  Virtually free of pest damage, and no overt signs of disease.  These apples are larger in size, with a green background and a pinkish/red overlay,  ripening to a shiny yellow background.  They taste like an apple.  The kids thought they were sweet, smooth, and fluffy.  Karyn was under impressed and thought they were dull, but would be good for cooking.  I thought they tasted like cider and  make for decent fresh eating.  While it is not the best apple I have ever eaten, I will gladly forage from this tree as often as nature lets me.

 

Golden Delicious – This is one of the apples we got off of Son of !Frankentree! this year.  We only had one apple to try, and it had a bit of pest damage.  Visually it was a small, golden/green apple, that was slightly pitted.  Upon the first taste Karyn felt a tartness in the back of her mouth and Freya thought she tasted lime or citrus.  Owen thought it was kind of bland, but that may be because it was not the best example of what this apple has to offer.  I love me a good Golden Delicious so I am looking forward to a better crop next year.

 

Steele Red – Steele Red is another apple off of Son of !Frank!  This apple was a show stopper for us.  Karyn described its appearance as rustic, and looking like an old painting, while Freya saw shades of purple and dark reds.  When I saw it cut open I described it as looking like a fairytale with an almost perfect white fleshed interior.  We were all in agreement that it was very crisp and really sweet with just a touch of sour apple candy in each bite!  Great eating that reminds us of what some of the modern varieties taste like, but much better.  A real keeper.

 

Wickson – Wickson is an apple that I was turned onto by my friend Steven who writes the blog Turkeysong.  Steven has been kind enough over the last few years to share many different varieties of apple genetics with me, and Wickson is one of them (also harvested off of Son of !Frankentree!).  Developed in northern California by Albert Etter in the early 1900s, Wickson is a crabapple with a sugar content of up to 25%!  A good addition to cider, or for a sweet treat right off the tree.  We only had one to try and it was described as small, darkish red, waxy, very tart, but well balanced with sweetness.  Once again, this apple shows a lot of promise in the years to come.

 

Goldrush – I did a review of Goldrush last year with an almost perfect specimen harvested from S.O.F.T..  Sadly, this year’s examples fall short to what we have tasted before.  While this years Goldrush apples were beaten up quite a bit, you could still glimpse (and taste) how wonderful this apple is.  Crisp, tart, and mildly sweet, Goldrush starts out slightly juicy and finishes dry in the back of your mouth.  Eating a Goldrush apple I can just imagine what a hard cider would be like when made with these apples!

 

The Library Apple!  A true beauty that deserves a real name ....

The Library Apple! A true beauty that deserves a real name ….

Library Apple – This is another one of the apple trees that we forage from, or should I say will be foraging from in the years to come.  I found this apple the day before our apple tasting while driving by our library.  This may or may not be a named cultivar, but my suspicions are that it is a seedling due to where I found it.  The Library apple is a very dark red, with a smooth shiny skin.  There are no stripes and almost looks like a velvety plum.  Both Owen and Freya loved this apple and it was described as “The best ever!”  Upon eating this last minute entry, the taste did not let us down.  It was soft, juicy, and very sweet with hints of berries and strawberries.  Library apple will have scion wood collected from it this spring and it will find a home in our orchard for further research and eating.  Delicious!

 

Honey Gold – Honey Gold has always been one of my favorite apples.  My first introduction to this apple was through the farmer’s market, and since then I have grafted Honey Gold onto S.O.F.T.  But the sample we had to taste this year actually comes from a tree that is growing at my in-laws property.    The general consensus was that is was very sweet, and well, tasted somewhat like honey.  Karyn also got hints of pineapple.  Honey Gold is a crunchy apple that is great for fresh eating, and an all round pleasure to have available to us.

 

A picture perfect Haralson.  I wish the taste would have been equal to its beauty ...

A picture perfect Haralson. I wish the taste would have been equal to its beauty …

Haralson – A popular Minnesota apple developed by the U of M in the 1920’s.  Red and russetting, this apple ripens a bit earlier and does not store super well.  So it is with great regret that I report the Haralson fared the worst in this tasting.  With words like astringent, bland, and UGHH being used to describe our homegrown local Haralsons you would have thought you were biting into a mass produced Red Delicious purchased from a Wal-Mart!  It really was that bad!  Part of the problem is that they were starting to loose their freshness due to age.  With a shelf life of only a month or two, a Haralson is meant to be used quickly and not put away on the shelf to be eaten later in the year.  Haralsons are great, and I know that in the past we have harvested a few really great apples off of this tree.  One year of pest damage and disease is not enough to stop me when I know the potential of this Minnesota classic.

 

 

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Here is a dark shot of myself and the giant puffball that I checked out from the library!

Here is a dark shot of myself and the giant puffball that I checked out from the library!

Two nights ago I found myself at our public library, diving deep into the bowels of what the Affordable Care Act will mean for my family and what our options for insurance may be.  Between looking at different websites trying to navigate this maze of government red tape, my mind would wander and my eyes would focus on the view looking down on the land outside of the library.  Our library was built over 20 years ago on land that was one of the last remaining farmsteads in W. St. Paul, MN and it still contains a few aspects of what it once was.

The fact that the county purchased this land for building a library (rather than a housing or commercial developer), was in certain regards a saving grace for some of the wildlife that called this little piece of Earth home.  So while there is a big library building and parking lot, there are a few acres of land that hold the remnants of a small oak savanna, a pond full of ducks and geese, black walnuts, birches, maples, delicious fruiting mulberries, aronia bushes, wild raspberries and many other species of plants and animals.

There is also a thriving underground network of mycelia; in other words mushrooms that also inhabit this small holdout of nature.  Sitting there in the library, daydreaming of affordable health care, my eyes were distracted by a large, white orb maybe 30 or 40 yards away from me.  From my vantage point looking through the windows, it was hard to tell exactly what it was – maybe a kid lost a ball, or someone lost a grocery bag to the wind, but whatever it was, my eyes kept coming back to it.  Something inside me knew what it was all along, so before it got too dark outside, I packed up my bag and made the short hike to find out what this mysterious object actually was.

giantpuffball

Thar’ she be gettin’ weighed in … Yaargh!

It took me less than five minutes to find what I was looking for, and let me say it was hard to miss!  I have seen some puffball mushrooms in my life, but nothing like this!  This Calvatia gigantea, or more commonly known as a giant puffball, weighed in at just over 2 pounds and was harvested at just the right time.  It was the perfect age for eating, and had no damage from bugs.  I gratefully harvested this gigantic fungi, and headed home to show my family.

Mushrooms are an interesting food in our household.  I am a crazy mushroom freak – I love hunting for them, eating them, and learning about them!  My kids are slowly following in my footsteps and becoming a bit more adventurous when it comes to eating mushrooms, and my wife is allergic to all mushrooms so she keeps her distance.  Needless to say, I am spoiled when it comes to mushrooms as there are very few mouths that I have to share my mushrooms with.

Knowing that I could only eat so much on my own, I brought some of the giant puffball with me to work to share with a few folks who I know would appreciate such a find.  Both of my bosses in the kitchen where I work love wild crafted mushrooms.  The day before my find, we tried some sulphur shelf mushroom (Laetiporus sulphurues), which is a bright orange, highly edible mushroom common to Minnesota and most of North America.  Two wild mushrooms in two days, not too bad!

I ended up cutting thick slices of the puffball and sauteing the pieces in butter with a little bit of salt and pepper.  How to describe them short of saying they were heavenly?  They are very light with a noticeable, but subtle, mushroom flavor and a texture that literally melts in your mouth.  In the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, giant puffballs are described as choice, which means don’t pass these up when you get a chance to eat them!

bolete

Here is the unidentified bolete from the library. Any guesses?

Another mushroom that I found the next day, also on this same land at the library is some type of bolete.  There were a few dozen of them growing in the footprint of a birch, so it leads me to believe that it is the birch bolete, or Leccinum scabrum or possibly the Slippery Jack that is comprised of a few other varieties of boletes.  This is a perfect example of why it is so important to make a positive ID before consuming any mushroom.

According to my Mushroom Field guide, boletes contain the largest number of edible species of any family of mushrooms.  While there is a good chance that the one I found is edible, and most likely quite good, I will not be taking a bite until I can make a positive ID, which most likely will not happen this season.

Making a positive identification of mushrooms can be done in a number of ways.  The first and easiest is by visual observation.  This works for some mushrooms without any problems.  I was taught about the “FoolProof Four” which include Morels, puffballs, sulphur shelfs, and chanterelles.  I have found three of the four and am still trying to track down chanterelles.  From my understanding, chanterelles do have a few look alikes that are not good for you, so having some back up methods of making positive identifications for mushrooms is a good thing to know about.

Other methods include knowing whether a mushroom has gills, pores, or some other way disseminating its spores.  Aroma can also be a clue, like the first time I found Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) there was an overwhelming smell of anise, which in the case of oyster mushrooms is an identfying characteristic.  Location of where it was found can be helpful, but by no means does it prove anything about the exact species.  And then there is a relatively simple test that you can do called a spore print (I will write about this sometime, I promise) that can also help you to ID a mushroom.  While I will not go into detail here about a spore print test, it is a very helpful way in determining what a mushroom may be.

Ultimately, if you are into mushrooms and enjoy hunting them and eating them, then educating yourself is the most important thing you can do.  The internet is very helpful, but personally I have found real life books to be more enjoyable when it comes to learning about mushrooms.  The National Audubon Society Field Guide To Mushrooms has been indispensable on my mushroom forays throughout the years, for it is full of great pictures and very scientific descriptions that have lead to some neat discoveries.  Another one that I have found helpful is Edible Wild Mushrooms of N. America by David W. Fischer and Alan E. Bessete.  This book is not nearly as comprehensive as the Audubon Field guide, but focuses more on edible mushrooms and all the wonderful ways that they can be prepared and preserved.

Just like gardening, tapping maple trees, or trying to catch a swarm of bees, mushroom hunting (and eating them as well) will always be an exciting and somewhat seasonal part of my life.  As I write, the seasons seem to be changing in front of me!  Cold winds blow out of the north, the leaves are changing colors and are falling to the ground, and I can see the Dark Days of winter looming not far off over the horizon.  But even with this season winding down there is always the hope of the future to keep us going and moving forward.  Soon enough the cold embrace of winter will keep me inside more than I would like to admit, but even winter does not last forever!  Before I know it, I will be out again, scouring the ground for the ever wonderful Morel!  Peace & Cheers

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Here are my two helpers.  We spent a morning picking apples off of a tree that we found a few years ago on a public boulevard.  The apples are almost perfect, and nearly blemish free.  They are large, slightly sweet and great fresh eating!

Here are my two helpers. We spent a morning picking apples off of a tree that we found a few years ago on a public boulevard. The apples are almost perfect, and nearly blemish free. They are large, slightly sweet and great fresh eating!

As happens this time every year, I have hit a lull in my writing.  Not that there hasn’t been plenty to write about, I just haven’t had the energy to sit down in front of the computer screen and pull all my thoughts together and put them into written words.  The summer of 2013 has seen our backyard bees doing great,  my wife just picked our first real harvest of Haralson apples, and it has been a very bountiful year for us on our urban foraging adventures which yielded us more than a dozen pints of mulberry jam and close to forty pounds of really great apples gleaned from an old neighborhood tree.

One reason for the lack of activity here at Autonomy Acres is that I am now working two jobs, and neither of them are the one that I have spent the last 10 years of my life working at.  Back at the end of May I called it quits at the adult beverage factory where I had worked and took the summer off to rediscover what it means to be human.  I was burnt out and depressed by the endless daily routine of factory life and knew I had to make some positive changes in the way I live and walk on this Earth.

Having a couple months off to gather my thoughts, and to let my body heal was the right medicine at the right time.  When I decided to take my life back, it was one of the most empowering moments I have ever felt, and the energy and self knowledge that I gained from that choice has changed my life.  I have realized that all the “Things” that society tells us are important and that matter are meaningless.  No longer will I let a “job” define who I am as a person.  The accumulation of money and “Toys” is not a measurement of happiness nor are they milestones that should be enshrined in our personal stories. Finally, it was reinforced in my mind that nothing is more important than our relationships with our families, friends, and the Earth.

While I wish I could say that I am now a gentleman of leisure, relaxing in a hammock sipping cold beer and reading Edward Abbey novels, sadly, I am still just a common worker!  I find myself back in my old haunts though – line cooking!  I worked restaurants for many years and truly enjoyed the kitchen work, but not the hours.  But I got lucky and I am now  slinging hash and eggs, cooking up real stocks and soups, and working with a terrific crew of Food Service Pirates at a local music college in the early morning, Monday through Friday.  It is nice to be appreciated for my talents and skills, and to also work for decent folks who treat me like a human being, and not a machine; a big change from where I previously worked.

I am also pulling a few shifts a week at a “Hip” national grocery store chain.  And while I do enjoy this as a part time gig, the pay is horseshit, and the health care benefits I was hoping to get through them just got put through the guillotine because of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which translated means – the big bosses saw this as an opportunity to make a shitload of money.  At least I still get a small discount on groceries!

It is interesting though to see a new side of the food industry that I was previously only a spectator and consumer in.  While I have written extensively about the global food supply chain and how it affects farmers and communities, and how it is ultimately not based on sustainable and local means and resources, seeing this first hand has been very educational.

freshly picked Haralsons!  These are an example of what can be grown in your own yard - No semi-truck needed!

freshly picked Haralsons! These are an example of what can be grown in your own yard – No semi-truck needed!

It is easy to use Wal-Mart as the poster child for the just-in-time, warehouse on wheels delivery model, but it is everywhere, whether that be a grocery store or a local brewery.  Anyone who has spent time researching food, how it is grown, and then how it is shipped to all parts of the world has seen the figures that say if a natural disaster or collapse of some kind disrupts the supply chain, grocery store shelves would be empty in 3 days.  Seeing how a grocery store runs, is managed, and is stocked I completely believe this.

Our food supply chain is balanced ever so gently on a global house of cards that when it does fall, it will fall fast.  It could happen because of the loss of honeybees that is now in the news almost everyday, or it could happen from a natural disaster or escalating climate change, or in a worse case scenario could be triggered by a terrorist attack or a war that shuts down the supply chain.  Whichever way you slice it, this scenario is all the evidence anyone should need to dig up that lawn and get growin’ as much of their own food that they can and begin adding a bit of resilience into their lives!

To echo past essays here at Autonomy Acres and other sources that touch on these issues, this predicament of global climate change, energy descent and food security that we find ourselves in, need to be looked at as an opportunity to move the human race forward into the future.  While it may seem like a futile prospect to think we can take on, and ultimately overcome these challenges, the words of Permaculture Pioneer Geoff Lawton come to mind -”All the worlds problem can be solved with a garden”!

It may seem like an idealistic statement, but I truly think that there is a lot of truth and wisdom from such a simple idea as planting a garden.  If everyone who has access to a bit of land, whether that be in the city or out in the country began to grow a portion of their own food, we would realize the abundance that this Earth can provide for us.  And a garden is more than just growing food.  Once you make the leap to becoming a producer and not just a consumer, many other wonderful things follow in the footsteps of a garden.

Compost is one of them.  Food scraps, garden waste, animal manures, leaves and other plant debris can all be composted and be used to start healing our soils.  When our soils are healthy and filled with organic matter, not only can we grow lots of great food, the soil also becomes a living ecosystem, a sponge for holding water, and most importantly a place that can capture and store carbon.

When we start to tend the Earth as stewards rather than rulers, and begin to see how humans can have a positive impact on our surroundings, beautiful things begin to spring forth.  Where once there were manicured lawns that were maintained by a regiment of poisons and pointless labor, now there can be gardens packed full of both annuals and perennials providing food for humans, habitat and forage for wildlife, and many other products that range from fibers, fuel, and pharmaceuticals.

Where once there were boulevards and roadsides, those pieces of land that are cut off from each, now there can be fruit and nut trees, fruiting shrubs, and forage for all the pollinators.  These pieces of land can be reclaimed and planted with species that need little to no human maintenance that once again help to feed us, provide us with fuel, store carbon, and heal the soil.

My futue looks sweet!  We took one frame of honey this year from our strongest hive.  It is a dark, sweet honey, most likely foraged from local goldenrod.

My futue looks sweet! We took one frame of honey this year from our strongest hive. It is a dark, sweet honey, most likely foraged from local goldenrod.

The future is full of possibilities.  If we continue down the road we are on now, then there will not be a future for the human race.  Turning the ship around is not enough – we have run out of time to do that, we need to jump overboard and start anew.  It will not be easy, but for the sake of the generations that follow, and all the other critters and plants that call this planet home it is what we must do.

Starting over will require participation from everyone.  It will not happen because a government or a corporation tells us too.  It will happen organically, and from the bottom up.  When the people demand an end to the destruction of the planet and are ready to start the healing process, governments and corporations will have no choice but to listen, and eventually cease to be.

It is possible, and it is starting.  It is happening everywhere that there are gardens being planted, where land is being reclaimed, and where communities are being built.  It happens when people band together and stand against the machine of oppression.  It happens when people realize that everything we have been taught is an illusion, and that when we change our lives, we have the power to change the world!  Peace & Cheer

A great video about living a simple life …

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Our first ever plums!  On the left is a Mount Royal, and the other is Superior, both off of Plumsy, our !FrankenPlum!

Our first ever plums! On the left is a Mount Royal, and the other is Superior, both off of Plumsy, our !FrankenPlum! Tree…

It is that time of year again here in the northern temperate climate of Minnesota when we start to see the abundance that pours forth from a well loved and tended garden.  Ripe tomatoes off of the vine, apples that will soon be picked, bags full of potatoes, and another successful harvest of garlic curing downstairs.

It seems like every spring I have reservations about the year to come – things like too much rain or not enough, how bad are the Japanese beetles going to be this year, or is a gigantic wind storm going to take out my fruit trees; and each year I am surprised by what happens and what thrives or what  completely fails.  But regardless of the overall outcome, we have always had something good to eat this time of year.  That is one of the benefits of planting a diverse garden, packed with the  many varieties of plants we have available to us.

This is a shot of the Superior plum. It was the best plum I have ever had, and I can not wait to have a whole tree filled with these little orbs of bliss sometime in the future!

This is a shot of the Superior plum. It was the best plum I have ever had, and I can not wait to have a whole tree filled with these little orbs of bliss sometime in the future!

When we diversify our gardens, regardless of the weather or pests, we can almost always insure some kind of harvest.  Right now, if I were so inclined too, I could walk out into the gardens and prepare any number of dishes using beets, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, onions, swiss chard, green beans, a wide range of cooking herbs, eggs from our chickens, and if I felt like stealing a bit of honey from the bees, that as well.

This is not me trying to brag, but more to show what is possible when we decide to grow food, and not lawns!  Yes, it takes some work.  Yes you may get strange looks from your neighbors (but also gain some allies as well).  And yes, you will eat better and feel the benefits of joining the ranks of us crazy Urban Homesteaders!

As far as our gardens are concerned, self sufficiency has never been the goal.  For me the thought of trying to be self sufficient in food, whether that be in a city or a rural setting is a mute point.  The only way to be truly self sufficient is by building and living in a community that is based on mutual aid and respect.  When we can respect our neighbors and lend a hand when one is needed, than we can talk about being self sufficient, or more appropriately, self reliant.  Growing food is one of the ways we can start to build these kinds of communities, and start the process of reclaiming our culinary traditions.

For the rest of the essay I am going to highlight a few things already mentioned, the food that we receive from our generous gardens this time of year.

garlic

Here is a shot of some of the garlic we grew this year. We ended up with close to 250 heads, and almost all of them were as beautiful as these!

Garlic – Here at the Dead End Alley Farm we have been growing garlic for about 8 years.  The first couple of years were pretty rocky with very meager results.  But with a bit of homework, and some  perseverance,  we have now grown great garlic for the last five or six years.  Right now we grow 7 varieties – Chesnok Red, Georgian Crystal and Fire, Killarney Red, Marten’s Unknown (rescued from my neighbors garden), Mitachi, and Siberian.  All of these are hardneck varieties that are well suited to our northern climate.

Garlic deserves its own essay here at Autonomy Acres, and someday I will get to that one, but for now I will leave you with this.  Garlic is a heavy feeder.  I devote a large percentage of my homemade compost to my garlic planting every fall.  So if nothing else, I know that wherever it is that I plant my garlic, that space also gets a huge addition of organic matter and nutrients once a year.  Two books that have been influential concerning my love affair with garlic have been Stanley Crawfords A Garlic Testament and Chester Aarrons Garlic Is Life.  Both are more memoirs rather than growing manuals, but they are great reads and may get you addicted to growing garlic, just like they did for me!

Tomatoes – These do not need any introduction.  The whole world loves them, and for great reasons.  They lend themselves well to many different types of cooking.  They can be blanched and frozen as whole fruits, chopped and prepared as fresh or canned salsa, or cooked down into the classic sauce that fills the shelves of so many of ours root cellars.

These were harvested as I wrote this essay.  There is a mix of Big Ivory, Black From Tula, Hungarian Oxheart, and two Russian heirlooms that I have lost the name on.  All of them are great eating!

These were harvested as I wrote this essay. There is a mix of Big Ivory, Black From Tula, Hungarian Oxheart, and two Russian heirlooms that I have lost the name on. All of them are great eating!

For the last few years we have grown on average about 15 tomato plants, some years more, some a little less, but that usually yields us about 15 quarts of canned sauce along with quite a few pints of canned salsa.  That does not include what we eat fresh, or what we provide in our CSA shares throughout the late summer.

Tomatoes should be a part of any homestead garden, if only for the taste and beauty that they add to fresh summer meals.  Stick to heirlooms, but don’t turn down a good hybrid or two for early fruits.  Be diligent on lite pruning and trellising, and you will be rewarded in bountiful harvests!

baggedpotatoes

These 3 bags of potatoes hold close to 80 pounds of spuds! Not bad for a $10 investment!

Potatoes – Potatoes, also known as Earth Apples, are a staple crop here at our city farm, along with the garden we have been establishing at my in-laws an hour west of St. Paul.  I my opinion, they are the best bang for your buck crop.  Seed potato is cheap, and if given the right environment, will thrive and more than triple its mass in return.

This year at our “country” garden, we planted three rows each with five pounds of whole “seed” potatoes planted offset in rows about 15 feet long.  We ended up harvesting close to 80 pounds from those three rows!  Talk about a real investment!  Once again, potatoes are heavy feeders, so any compost, manure, and mulch that can be set aside just for them is well advised.

We also have a number of potatoes planted here in the cities this year as well.  They take up two of our raised beds and were planted with pre cut potato “eyes”.  As of right now the jury is still out on how well they have performed, the plants are still green and robust so we will allow them to be for now and keep growing into the early autumn.  Otherwise, potatoes are a great staple crop that can be grown in smaller spaces and provide a lot of calories that we can not get from other garden variety crops.

So to sum things up in this installment of Autonomy Acres, plant, plant, plant!  Grow whatever, and wherever you can, and realize the abundance that can be had with a little time and effort.  I am going to finish this short essay with one of my favorite youtube videos, a short piece from a South African farmer by the name of Jo Dyantyi.  I can only hope to have his outlook on life someday!  Happy harvesting Amigos y Amigas … Peace & Cheers

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