by Maria Reidelbach
One of the things I love about writing this column is the motivation it gives me to stretch my diet to include more varieties of local food. In the past year, I’ve made a few wonderful finds that I’d like to share in this last, darkest month of 2013. I hope they remind you of warmer times, too.
It was a lousy year for parsley in my little home garden—it was slow starting and then a gourmet groundhog got around the fence one day and ate it down to the nub. She did leave my lovage plant, an archaic, obscure herb, cousin to parsley and celery. (Taller than a groundhog, so she couldn’t reach its leaves!) I discovered lovage years ago and was growing it only because I love the cardamommy scent though I’ve never known what to do with it. It’s strong and spicy and I was rather intimidated. But without any parsley in the garden I was soon subbing the lovage, and I’d use it when I lacked accent celery for a recipe, too. Once again the Mother of Invention provided a superior alternative. I discovered that used in cooking, lovage adds an amazing, mysterious dimension. The Oxford Companion to Food describes the flavor well—milder and sweeter than celery greens with a “distinctively warm spicy fragrance.” And get this, it’s called lovage from its ancient use as a love potion; it’s that seductive! Keep your eye out for seeds and seedlings at local farmstands, that’s where I got mine.
The summer and fall’s beautiful sunny weather was a bad for mushroom hunting. After a promising morel season in May the ‘shrooms of summer and the fungi of fall just didn’t emerge—at least not where I was looking. I was giving up for the season when I remembered a spot that my friend Wayne Kelder pointed out to me last year. Wayne, who’s our town of Rochester’s Highway Supervisor, is a good guy to know if you’re a scavenger—he sees a lot of roadside in his rounds. Next to a back road on a scattered bale of hay, dozens of majestic white mushrooms sprouted. They were shaggy manes, tall, narrow, and distinguished by a furry white cap that stays down like a closed umbrella. I eagerly harvested a basketful, leaving the small ones to grow. A couple of days later I got a dismayed report from Wayne, “I went past that mushroom patch today and some ignoramus poured oil on them!” I was touched by Wayne’s outrage, but I had to giggle a sigh of relief—shaggy manes, aka Coprinus comatus, are also called inky caps. When they’re growing, shaggies are legendarily strong enough to push through asphalt (through steady hydraulic pressure, they say), but the fungi are also so delicate that within a day of emerging they dissolve (deliquesce is the geek term) into a puddle of black liquid. It’s quite dramatic. Ya gotta love ’em! For weeks I was able to return every couple of days and harvest for myself and friends. Shaggy manes are a delectable mushroom—a texture that melts in your mouth and a buttery aroma. They are good variety for beginners to hunt since they’re so distinctive—check out online sources below to learn more.
While I was at a Re>Think Local mixer at Fruition Chocolates last fall, I took the opportunity to browse chocolate maker Bryan Graham’s bookshelf. I found a fantastic book—The Flavor Bible. Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg interviewed dozens of great chefs and compiled a vast guide to complementary vegetables, fruit, grain, meat and herbs. This book is fun to use! For instance, when I’m cooking a workday supper, I often just throw some whole grain in the rice cooker, steam-saute whatever fresh local veg I’ve got, toast some nuts or cook some eggs for protein and drizzle the combination with a simple dressing or flavored oil. Although the vegetables change with the seasons, I can get into a bit of a rut with the combos. But now, before I cook, I look up one or more of the ingredients I’m using and get inspired by all kinds of ideas of additions that make my simple dinner much more interesting and fresh. If I look up the veg-du jour, winter squash, I find apples, chili powder, coconut milk, ginger, orange juice and zest, pears, pecans, radicchio, wild rice and dozens more ideas to vary my repast. Besides the charts, The Flavor Bible has a fascinating chapter on the building blocks of flavor, plus quotes and dish descriptions of the chefs that they interviewed. The Flavor Bible‘s been out a few years, I got mine used online.
One last wonderful discovery of 2013. On a gorgeous midsummer day I was tooling down Route 209 on my bike and became enveloped by the most lovely fragrance—spicy and green and resiny and…like pizza! I was passing meadows blanketed with pale violet flowers. Jumping off and wading in, I found a field of wild bergamot, a beautiful flowering plant in the mint family—the same prolific genus containing oregano. It was a little heaven there amidst the waist-high blooms! For weeks after I noticed aromatic bergamot fields everywhere. Was this an especially great year for the herb, or was it an especially great year for me noticing? I don’t really care, I just love that this divine sensual experience exists in our corner of the planet, just a bicycle ride—and a couple of seasons—away.
Happy holidays, whatever you celebrate, happy new year and happy eating!
The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, an encyclopedic source of food info
The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Foraging and Feasting, by Hudson Valley’s Dina Falconi (this is where I learned about wild bergamot)
Mushroom Expert, Michael Kuo’s excellent website: mushroomexpert.com
The Complete Mushroom Hunter by master forager Gary Lincoff
Fruition Chocolates, Shokan, NY, tastefruition.com
Abe Books: abebooks.com (a friendlier Amazon alternative)
Maria Reidelbach is an author and applied artist living and eating in Accord, NY.