Wednesday, September 29, 2010


A caragana pod in Hawrelak ParkCaragana has a reputation similar to that of poplar trees, verging on "weed" status. The growth has a spiny appearance that most find unattractive. The plants sucker, and produce exploding pods that throw seeds everywhere. Plus they require lots of trimming just to stay presentable.

Caragana is native to places like (go figure...) Siberia, and was brought to the Canadian west in the 1880s.[1] It is extremely drought-resistant and was used extensively in farmhouse shelterbelts. I would guess that it's the second most common hedge in Edmonton, after cotoneaster, though you are much more likely to see it in older communities like Garneau than, say, Terwilliger. It also grows wild in the Edmonton river valley.

In the early summer, caragana shrubs grow slender, green, bean-like pods. In late summer the pods turn brown, thin-skinned, and brittle. The seeds within develop a fantastic flavour that reminds me of green pea and asparagus, with a profound, sweet, nuttiness. For a short while I eat them raw from the shell. As they dry further, they have to be boiled like other legumes.

After the pods have thoroughly dried, they burst and release the seeds. This bursting is actually quite dramatic. The first time I picked caragana I collected the pods in a large glass jar. Every so often there was a popping sound, and some of the pods would jump out of the container. I kept picking through the jar because I thought a grasshopper had fallen into it. After popping, the two halves of the pod twist around themselves to resemble spiral shank nails. (If you click on the above photo, you can see some twisted pod shells in the top left corner.) Obviously, the pods need to be collected before they burst.

So here's the catch: the pods contain maybe six seeds that are each about a half centimeter across. Foraging is tedious, to the point that I don't know if you would realistically collect enough seeds to serve as a legume dish for dinner. They might be better scattered through salads. Depends how persistent you are, I guess.

As I write this, the caragana are throwing the last of their seeds onto the autumn ground. If you hurry, you can have one last taste to contemplate over the winter.

1. Skinner, Hugh, and Williams, Sara. Best Trees and Shrubs for the Prairies.
©2004 Hugh Skinner and Sara Williams. Page 73.

This has been my go-to book for information on local trees and shrubs for a few years now. It has an ornamental bent, and is very conservative on edibility issues. It makes no comment on caragana's edibility.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Harvest Day at Tipi Creek CSA 2010

A cabbage-headed scarecrow at Tipi Creek FarmThis past Saturday was the last harvest day at Tipi Creek CSA. All the remaining vegetables were picked and divided amongst the shareholders.

As one of our farmers put it, this was a mushroom year, and a cold crop year: we got lots of moisture, but very little heat. Hence the plentiful, but mostly green, squash. The last few weeks of overcast drizzle stalled two of the corn varieties, and the fall spinach. Other crops, notably cabbage and broccoli, flourished in the cold. Risk is mitigated by crop diversity.

Here are some photos and notes from the harvest day.


With the potato foliage long killed off, a potato digger is dragged over the rows. The digger lifts masses of earth and potato, then sifts the dirt out and drops the potatoes on top for easy picking.
Dragging the potato digger to unearth potatoes
Note how black the earth is (we now have several pounds of this dirt in our kitchen, under our fingernails, and in our shoes...)

All the potatoes, spread on a tarp
Once all the potatoes are collected, some choice round specimens are saved as seed potatoes for next year. They will be stored over the winter to grow eyes.

A round, uniform potato, ideal as a seed potato
Embarrassingly, this was the first time I'd ever seen the fruit of the potato plant. Apparently they're poisonous.

The fruit of the potato plant


Kohlrabi plant

Green Onions
Green onions


The larger, tougher cabbage leaves from around the head are piled up to be fed to the pigs. (Other porcine favourites: corn and apples. No wonder those flavour pairings work so well.) Other vegetable trim is composted.
Large piles of cabbage leaves which will be fed to the pigs
Pumpkins, Hubbard, Buttercup, and Spaghetti Squash

A trailer-load of pumpkins and squash

Corn tassles
Fresh-picked corn on the cob
A Salamander (Not a part of regular CSA shipments...)

A salamander found digging in the carrots
The Numbers

As planned earlier in the season, Lisa and I weighed every bit of produce we received so that we could compare our CSA cost to that of an equivalent amount of food from the farmers' market and grocery store. With all our harvest in, we can now start the formal comparison. I'm going to review the numbers and post our results this weekend.

A railway in Sturgeon county near Tipi Creek Farm

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mushrooms (A Lovesong)

A foray leader identifying a mushroom for a group of beginnersMy mind is still reeling from the Labour Day weekend, when Lisa and I attended the Great Alberta Foray in the Bow and Kananaskis valleys. The foray was run by the Alberta Mycological Society.
One month ago, I didn't know what mushrooms were. Of course I had cooked and eaten them, but I didn't understand, for instance, their anatomy (why do they have gills?) or their role in my front lawn (why do they grow in rings?).

Here are some mushroom basics I learned that weekend.

1. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi.

I was sure of one fact before attending the foray: mushrooms are fungi. (Mycologists, however, pronounce the word with a soft "g", which precludes any "fun guy" homophone jokes.) "Mushrooms are fungi" is actually a misleading statement, as the visible, fleshy mushrooms we all know are only a small part of the fungal organism. Beneath the mushroom, in the substrate, which may be soil or a dead tree or an old shoe, is a network of microscopic fibers called hyphae. There can be 2km of hyphae in a square centimeter.[1] These strands collect water and nutrients from the environment. The mushroom is just the fruiting body of the fungus. It pops out of the ground or tree and ejects spores into the air. The gills on familiar grocery-store mushrooms are fertile, spore-producing ridges. However:

2. Not all mushrooms have gills.

These spore-producing layers come in all types. Some mushrooms have teeth instead of gills. The Hericium ramosom is a branched mushroom covered in tiny teeth, making it look like a miniature shrub covered with hoarfrost, or perhaps a piece of white coral. Other mushrooms have rough folds beneath the cap, or a spongy layer full of holes. Some mushrooms don't have exposed fertile layers at all. The puffball, for example, produces its spores in a golfball-sized sack.

One mushroom we saw looked like a red eyelid wearing black mascara, growing on a dead tree. I have no idea where its spores are produced...

I could go on all day with these clumsy descriptions. What I mean to say is that I was shocked by the diversity of mushrooms that were more or less in plain sight around our camp. The smells and tastes of the mushrooms were as varied and exotic as the appearances. We cooked with a mushroom that smells strongly of seafood. By divine providence, it is also bright orange, and so is called a lobster mushroom.

Not only are mushrooms extremely various:

3. There are mushrooms everywhere.

While I have occasionally noticed mushrooms while walking, I had never purposefully looked for them before this foray. Once I started looking groundward, I saw mushrooms every few paces.

To give you an idea of how common mushrooms are: 90% of all plants have a symbiotic relationship with fungi.[2] Wherever there are plant roots, there are fungal hyphae. The hyphae collect water and mineral nutrients for the plants in return for sweet, sweet glucose. This is called a mycorrhizal relationship (Greek for "mushroom-root," I think).
The strong relationship between plants and fungi is one of the major obstacles in mushroom cultivation. Of the thousands of species of mushrooms in the world, very few are cultivated. Several of the most prized edible mushrooms, like morels, truffles, chanterelles, and matsutakes, are mycorrhiza. To cultivate truffles, for instance, you essentially need to cultivate an oak forest for them to grow alongside.

How to get into mushrooms.
Most of us are mistrustful of mushrooms. Yes, several are poisonous, and not in boring ways like arsenic or cyanide. For example: mushrooms of the Cortinarius genus contain a toxin that stops the neogenesis of kidney cells. After consumption of the toxin, your kidneys continue to work fine, but as old cells die none are built to replace them. It sounds like something from a CSI episode, but after a few weeks your kidneys suddenly fail.

Don't let stories like this scare you away from mushrooms. The Leni Schalkwijk Memorial Foray was one of the most interesting culinary and intellectual experiences I've had in years. Enjoyment is a simple matter of practicing safe mushrooming.

If you're interested in learning more about mushrooms, Martin Osis, the president of the Alberta Mycological Society, gives the following advice.

  • Buy a good field guide. Field guides list the characteristics of the most common wild mushrooms, identifiers such as size, colour, how the gills are attached to the stem, what tree the mushroom grows by, and so on. All of these characteristics must match for a positive identification, as mushrooms often have near-identical look-alikes. I think the most interesting technique for identification is spore-printing: leaving gilled-mushrooms gills-down on a white piece of paper for a couple hours and then observing the colour of the spores that collect on the paper. The print forms in the radial shape of the gills, and can range in colour from yellow to purple to brown to white.
  • Pick with experienced foragers. Mushroom identification is certainly a field of study that requires mentorship. Even with a detailed field guide, I was completely stumped by most of the mushrooms I came across ("Is that spore print dark brown or chocolate brown? Do these gills feel waxy?")
  • Join a mycological society.
  • Take a mushroom course. NAIT has recently joined forces with the Alberta Mycological Society to offer a course on Alberta wild mushrooms.
  • Use scientific names. While common names may seem descriptive, they are much less precise than scientific names. Plus they vary across time and place. For instance, in Alberta the common name "destroying angel" (probably the most bad-ass mushroom name...) refers to Amanita virosa. Down east the handle refers to Amanita bisporegia.
  • Keep field notes with pictorial record. The more information you record from each mushroom picking, the more tools you will have to aid in the identification process.


McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. ©2004 Scribner, New York. Page 345.
I read this little factoid on a poster published by the Alberta Mycological Society. Not a very academic citation, I guess, but good enough for my purposes.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Preserving Tomatoes

A pan of oven-dried tomatoesTwo years ago, I had no place in my heart for tomatoes. With the stiff, pale burger-garnishes in mind, I wondered how anyone could get excited about them.

Then a few potted tomato plants in the backyard taught me how much heat they need to mature. Once they started to fruit, the woman next door was in awe, as not thirty feet away she had tried to grow tomatoes to no avail. We decided it was the exposed, south-facing cement wall behind my plants, storing heat during the day to pass to the tomatoes at night, that let them flourish. After harvest, I built a special room in my heart for tomatoes, the demanding plants that grow best in greenhouses and small anomalous corners of backyards. They are a luxury, and the crown of the late-summer harvest.

In Edmonton, it's hard to acquire the amount of tomatoes that necessitates preserving. However, for several years my mom has been taking advantage of a boom and bust greenhouse production cycle. She buys from a greenhouse that only produces in summer months, so come September they have a windfall of beautiful tomatoes that are dirt cheap. She's able to buy 40lbs of romas for $20.

Oven Drying

I keep expecting preserving to compromise the eating-quality of fresh ingredients. But, as with other preserves like jam and pickles, I'm left with a fantastic pantry item with an intense, focused flavour. In fact, I think I enjoy oven-dried tomatoes more than fresh ones. The process evaporates moisture to concentrate flavour and acidity, and gently caramelizes some of the sugars. These tomatoes are dynamite in pasta or tapenade, or just on a plate with garlic sausage.

Cut the romas in half and remove the juice and seeds. Strain this mixture and reserve the juice, either to drink or to use in canning (see below). Toss the flesh of the romas in oil, salt, and pepper. Go easy on the seasoning, as the tomatoes will reduce to a fraction of there original mass. Place the tomatoes on a sheet pan lined with parchment or silicon, and put them in an oven on low heat, maybe 200F. Not trusting the thermostat in my oven, I have a high-temperature thermometer clipped to the oven rack. I have to set my dial below 150F to achieve 200F. Leave the tomatoes for several hours, until they develop a dense, chewy texture. This year mine took about twenty hours. Packed in oil they will keep for months.


Authorities like Bernardin and the USDA say that the pH of tomatoes is on the cusp of acceptable acidity for canning. As such they recommend the addition of lemon juice to the canning liquid, about two tablespoons per quart. From a flavour standpoint, this makes me cringe. I have, however, read testimonies of people who grew up on tomatoes canned without any acid supplements.

I wonder if, since the pH walks the line of food safety, I could give it a bump in the right direction by slightly reducing the tomato juice we can with. Some water boils off, leaving a higher concentration of acidity.

As this was my first year canning tomatoes, I tried a bunch of different recipes. All started by blanching, shocking, and peeling the tomatoes. Then I canned some in water, some in tomato juice, some with lemon, some without, some with herbs and salt, some without.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Notes on Dry-Curing Meat

Dry-cured sausages hanging in a wine cellarI just finished my first batch of dry-cured sausage. It is essentially fresh ground pork, stuffed into casings with nitrate and seasonings, then left to dry. The temperature and humidity have to be just right for the sausage to dry properly. I experimented with climate-control when making pancetta this past spring. In that case the meat had already been cured in my fridge, and the drying was just to change the texture. The pancetta was also cooked before eating. This is a whole other ball game, as these sausages aren't cured in the fridge beforehand, and aren't cooked before eating.

Dry-curing is an interesting process. With most charcuterie preparations, there are easily-described visual indicators to guide you along. For instance, when grinding meat, you look for a clean extrusion from the die, with each stream of ground meat remaining distinct from its neighbours. If the streams smear together in globules, either your meat and fat are too warm, or perhaps the grinder blade has collected connective tissue and needs to be cleaned. When dry-curing, you have to rely on subtle changes in the feel of the meat. The textures and densities are hard to describe to the beginner.

Given the mysterious and temperamental nature of the process, I'm sure most charcutiers take thorough notes on temperature, humidity, and the feel of the meat at each stage of curing, though they don't seem to share these notes very often.

On the contrary, charcutiers are legendary for their secrecy. Some examples:
  • "Good charcuterie recipes are as closely guarded as family secrets. As a young cook in Moissac, France, I had to spy and even participate in the killing of my neighbor's pig just to get his pâté recipe." Eric Ripert, in a review of Ruhlman's Charcuterie
  • "He seemed less than happy about aiding us, probably because he was having second thoughts about letting go of his family's priceless boudin noir. After both Fred and I again pledged that we would not publish a recipe giving exact quantities, he relented, remaining slippery on only one or two matters." Jeffrey Steingarten, It Takes a Village to Kill a Pig
  • This ridiculous article, succinctly titled, "Chefs become experts at charcuterie thanks to secret website"
Here are some basic notes on my first attempt, notes that I hope to elaborate as I do more curing.

Preventing Case Hardening

According to my humidity meter, the curing room was at 65% humidity, which is very good (though 70% would be ideal). I slowly developed a mistrust of this hygrometer, as over the first two days of curing the casings dried out completely. During this period, the casings should be a little tacky if you run your thumb over them. My casings were dry and smooth, offering no moisture-indicating friction when rubbed. To prevent the outermost parts of the sausage from hardening and trapping moisture within, I started misting the sausages with water a couple times a day. I did this from about day three until day seven.

Judging Doneness

I'm kicking myself for not weighing the links before I hung them up, because a good indicator of doneness is when the sausages have lost 30% of their weight. I was left squeezing the sausages every day, trying to decide when they were done. After three weeks they still had a slight give in the centre. A few more days and they were stiff throughout.

Preserving Shape?

When the sausages were first hung they were shaped like any other fresh sausage, cylindrical and tightly packed, the casings pulled taut. As the sausages lost moisture, they did not shrink uniformly into slender cylinders, but shrank in only one dimension, forming an elliptical cross-section instead of a round one (see photo below). Made for a very "rustic" product. The shrinkage patterns don't seem to be related to how I hung the sausages. I wonder if there is a way to control this.

The finished dry-cured sausage

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fall Foraging in Edmonton

A few of the many wild edibles that are in season:

Highbush Cranberries

Highbush cranberries are traditionally picked after the first frost, when they are said to be sweetest. I don't know if the freezing temperature itself does something to sweeten the fruit, or if it's simply that waiting until the first frost gives the fruit the longest possible time to ripen and sweeten.

Cool, cloudy summers like the one we've just had yield berries with more acid and less sugar. Even so, the berries will still be good, so go pick a handful to save for Thanksgiving dinner.

Highbush cranberries in the Edmonton river valley


Cornucopic clusters of chokecherries hang along the trails of the river valley this time of year. The ease of picking is counteracted by the relatively low yield of usable fruit: there is after all a large pit in each cherry (hence the name..) A food-mill with the right sized plate will separate the flesh from the pits. Chokecherries are extremely astringent, and make a superb fruit wine.

Chokecherries in the Edmonton river valley


The fruit of roses.

A quick digression: I've often wondered why rosewater hasn't become an Albertan specialty, given the provincial association, the omnipresence of wild roses, and how easy it is to make.

Rosehips in the Edmonton river valley


I've pondered for some time whether the low-lying juniper planted in front lawns (Juniperus horizontalis) is edible, like its cousin Juniperus communis. I recently decided to stop wondering and start eating. These berries rarely seem to get as dark blue and fleshy as those sold at the grocery store, but they still taste fantastic, especially with game and sauerkraut.

Fruiting juniper in Edmonton


When Lisa and I started noticing these bright, matted red berries, we thought for sure they were poisonous. Turns out they're not. The berries and the root of this plant taste uncannily like watermelon.

Fairy bells in the Kananaskis River valley

Mountain Ash (Rowan)

I always assumed that mountain ash berries were inedible. They stay on the trees through the winter, and I figured that if the birds don't eat them, people probably shouldn't, either. Then I stumbled over the entry for rowanberry in Larousse: "An orange-red berry the size of a small cherry. It is the fruit of the mountain ash tree, a species of Sorbus. The berries are used when almost overripe to make jam or jelly (good with venison) and, on a small scale, brandy. They have a tart flavour."

As with the juniper, I worried that Edmonton had a different, inedible species of Sorbus. Then, after a certain botanist assured me they were safe, I started eating them. They're sour, and kind of taste like rhubarb.

Mountain ash in Edmonton