Gone Native

shelf in my living roomMy ex-husbands, who often listened to this California-born summer girl whine about Northeastern winters, would be surprised to know that this week I was delighted by the chill in the air. I cheerfully shut the living room window for the first time in months, found space for the tender perennials that will overwinter indoors, and picked the green tomatoes. I smiled at the bright red leaves falling from a maple tree on my block and at the pumpkins lined up on a neighbor’s front steps. Yup, that’s right–I’ve gone native. I can’t imagine living without four distinct seasons anymore. What changed me? Food.

Maybe it was all the years of foraging and gardening here that finally caught up with me. Or maybe this year of extreme food activism, this 250-Mile Diet, finally pushed me over the edge. Perhaps it was the unusually warm weather we had until this week, which stretched summer temperatures long past the autumnal equinox. For the first time ever I got tired of basil and tomatoes, fabulous as they are. I got tired of shorts and flip flops. I wanted potato and leek soup, wild mushrooms, and roasted winter squash. I wanted an excuse to delve into my store of dried and home-canned foods, not inferior to their fresh counterparts but different, as raisins are to grapes.

Of course, in a few months I’m sure I’ll be completely over apples, potatoes and cabbage and looking forward to the first fresh greens of spring. Which is as it should be.

Flashback to not quite thirty years ago: I am sixteen years old and have just moved, on my own, to New York. My room mate and I are at the supermarket. What is in our cart? Iceberg lettuce, supermarket tomatoes, mealy red delicious apples and a few boxes of mac and cheese. What month is it? No way to tell from our shopping choices, but if summer had ended then I bet we were complaining about the cold.

Meanwhile, back here in the future, I’m enjoying firing up the oven without overheating my one bedroom apartment. Today I got back from work and got the sourdough starter I took out of the fridge in the morning kneaded it into a bread dough. There is a batch of apple hickory nut muffins in the oven (Best fast food ever is grabbing one of these out of the freezer in the morning. By the time I’ve showered, dressed, and walked the fifteen minutes to the LIRR train the muffin is thawed and ready for breakfast-on-the-run). One of my favorite soups is on the stove. I’m not saying I don’t still love summer. Just that the cold months are delicious, too.

Here’s a recipe that includes apples, winter squash, and root vegetables. It’s pretty much autumn in a bowl:

Squash & Apple Soup

Serves approx. 4

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Cut acorn or small butternut or other winter squash in half and scrape out seeds (a grapefruit spoon is great for this). Place cut side down in a baking pan with about ½-inch water. Bake until squash is very tender, 45min. -1hr.

Meanwhile, in a heavy bottomed pot, melt:
1 Tbsp. butter or duck fat

Add and sauté over low heat about 10 minutes:
1 c. chopped leeks or onions

1 tsp. salt
2 c. peeled, cored, chopped apples
1 c. peeled, chopped sweet potato, celeriac, or carrots
2 c. water
(no, stock wouldn’t be better)

Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, 30-45 min. until everything is tender.

Scoop out flesh from baked squash and add to other ingredients. Puree with an immersion blender, or in a regular blender in two batches. Add salt if needed. Serve hot.

Not sure what this is about? Read Getting Ready for the 250-Mile Diet and The Rules


You Can Can

“As long as you know what you’re trying to do, there’s no reason to be scared of doing it.” –Julia Child

Leda’s Canning Workshop

Two weeks ago I taught a canning workshop for my CSA. We made a rose geranium-flavored apple jelly, and a pear chutney. It all went splendidly except for one awkward moment when I asked the participants to help me fill the jars. I had already explained exactly how much head space to leave, how to get out any air bubbles, and how tightly to screw on the two-piece canning lids. Yet everyone hesitated and a few faces showed genuine fear. Clearly they were thinking something along the lines of “If I screw this up it means botulism and I could die.” Except that it is scientifically impossible to get botulism from a vinegar drenched chutney or a sugar loaded jelly, and I’d already explained why.

Interestingly, when I brought the jars of beautifully blush colored jelly and spicy chutney to the next CSA distribution, no-one hesitated to accept them. In fact, a few of the canning workshop participants got quite competitive when it looked as though we’d be short a couple of jars. So I guess because I, the teacher, had made them they were guaranteed to be okay, right?

Not to disrespect any so-called expert’s hard-earned knowledge, but even novices are capable of learning things, and learning them well. I absolutely take seriously the need to respect the rules when it comes to food preservation safety, but I also trust people’s ability to learn and follow those rules. We all learned how to look both ways before crossing the street, right?

canning workshop

Ditto for foraging. You know who makes great foragers? Chefs and children. Children because they are good at remembering sensory detail such as the texture or smell of a leaf, and chefs because they are food-crazed and will learn any skill they need to in order to taste that next great heretofore unknown ingredient.

A week ago I was teaching a wild edible plants class at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and again I encountered that glitch of having the students who’d been avidly taking notes for two hours hesitate when I suggested that they actually taste a plant they had just correctly identified. And that was with me, The Expert, looking over their shoulder to assure them that their ID was correct.

Be careful, be certain, if in doubt throw it out. Absolutely. But do you really trust strangers in some mass manufacturing plant three thousand miles away, who cannot possibly monitor every can that comes out of their factory, more than you trust yourself? Remember the recent canned cat food recalls? I trust my home-canned tomatoes because I know the farmer who grew them, exactly what I did with them and how I processed each and every jar. That is food security. Not taking some brand name’s alleged expertise on trust.

If you want your diet to be more locally based, and if you want that local diet to be interesting in February, then even if you are not taking it to the extreme that I am you will want to learn a few basic food preservation skills. These can be simple. For example, knowing that chopped bell peppers need no blanching or other special treatment before freezing, but that it is helpful to freeze them in a single layer on a tray or plate before packing into bags or containers (that way, instead of a huge block of frozen peppers you have loose frozen pieces from which you can scoop out only what you need).

Home-preserved products taste good, support local growers because you make them from each ingredient as it comes into season in your area, can be great fun to make, add diversity to your winter diet, and make really show-off gifts. Have I made my point yet?


Makes approx. 8 half pint jars. You can halve or double the recipe. Feel free to experiment with other types of fruit, including dried fruit. Apples, pears, nectarines, and green tomatoes all make excellent chutneys. Use clean jars, but it is not necessary to sterilize them for this recipe because the processing time is a full 15 minutes.

1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

4 lbs. fresh fruit, cored and chopped (peeling is optional)

1 ½ cups raisins or other dried fruit

2 ¼ cups brown sugar OR 1 ½ cups honey

2 bell peppers, seeded and chopped

1-2 hot chilé peppers, seeded and chopped

2 cups apple cider vinegar (at least 5% acetic acid—the label will tell you or test your homemade vinegar with a titration kit available from online wine making sites)

3 Tbsp. fresh ginger, peeled and minced OR 2 Tbsp. wild ginger (Asarum)

2 tsp. non-iodized salt

Simmer, stirring often, for 1-2 hours until thickened. Pack into jars leaving ½-inch head space. Process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.

I’ll be giving a workshop on Eating Locally Throughout The Year on December 1st as part of Just Food’s Good Food Now event. Food preservation will definitely be part one of the topics I’ll be covering!

Not sure what this is about? Read Getting Ready for the 250-Mile Diet and The Rules


Mushroom Week

The star local ingredient of this past week was definitely wild mushrooms. Despite over a month of dry weather that has made the fall mushroom season less abundant than usual, I scored over five pounds of choice edible mushrooms.

I spotted the first find, a Chicken mushroom (Laetiporus sulphureus), during a hike on Bear Mountain with the mushroom guy, Gary Lincoff. I have wanted to take Gary’s mushroom class for years but schedule conflicts, etc. denied me the opportunity until this fall. It was worth waiting for: I can confidently identify many more edible mushrooms than I could before taking the class, and just as importantly can also identify the poisonous shrooms in our area. While I think that most North Americans are way too scared of wild mushrooms, I agree that this is not a topic for guesswork. Here is the Chicken:


The Chicken mushroom looks and tastes like…you guessed it. I chopped it up and turned it into a gumbo that I served to friends last Friday night. Gumbo is traditionally served on rice, but I haven’t found any locally grown rice so I served it on polenta from Wild Hive Farm. The rest of the meal’s ingredients were mainly from my CSA share, farmers markets, and my garden, but there was one other wild ingredient: filee. This is the seasoning and thickener that gives gumbo its classic taste, and it is made out of nothing more than dried, powdered sassafras leaves. Since sassafras grows all over the parks and woods in this area, I’ve already put away a good supply. Anyway, people went back for seconds of the gumbo so I’d say it was a hit. There was a TV crew from Germany there filming the dinner for a spot on the local food movement in the U.S., but more about that in a future post.

Saturday I taught a wild edible plants class at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. On the way home from teaching I spotted a Maitake mushroom, also called Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa). It was at its perfectly tender and fabulous stage. I’ve been eating it in various recipes for three days and still have some leftover to dry for the winter (you can also freeze it without any special pre-treatment). Maitake is 27% protein and is sold in health food stores as an immune system booster. I was more interested in the fact that it is delicious, but it’s always nice to throw in some nutritional and medicinal benefits. Imagine my delight when I spotted another one this morning on my way back from teaching on Long Island!

Here is the Hen:


Last night some of the Hen got sauteed with garlic and broccoli rabe from my CSA and tossed with pasta. That got topped with a little of my exemption olive oil and grated Sprout Creek Farm barat cheese. Delicious.

Other than that, I’ve been canning and drying and freezing and lacto-fermenting and otherwise trying to prepare for the winter. Some math that was undoubtedly basic to earlier generations, such as just how many jars of tomatoes do I need to last till next July, is a foreign but fascinating new subject for me. Stay tuned…

Not sure what this is about? Read Getting Ready for the 250-Mile Diet and The Rules