Sunday, October 19, 2014

October Bounty

October brings all sorts of goodies. Apples, pumpkins, glorious foliage, and mushrooms. Lots of mushrooms, in fact. Local foragers have been out in the woods, bringing back treasures like the chicken of the woods mushrooms I purchased today at the Market Square Farmer’s Market. Mossy Creek Mushrooms was the vendor.  I received helpful suggestions on preparing the mushrooms, and an invitation to a mushroom log cultivation workshop offered by Mossy Creek Mushrooms on Sunday, October 26, beginning at 2:00 at Panther Creek State Park near Morristown. Find more information on the Mossy Creek Mushrooms Facebook Page.

Chicken-of-the-woods, Laetiporus sulphureus, typically appears on trees in October. Recent mycological research indicates that this fungus only occurs east of the Rocky Mountains. Several similar-appearing species constitute a group once thought to contain only a single species. The “true” species lives on hardwood trees, often oaks, and the fruiting body appears some distance off the ground. Related species growing on conifers or near the ground should be avoided, despite the superficially similar appearance. In fact, unless you are an experienced mushroom forager, you should rely on the pros to find local edible mushrooms.

Chicken-of-the-woods should not be consumed raw. Clean them of any surface debris, and place in a saucepan. Cover with water, add a big pinch of salt and a dribble of vinegar. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Drain, rinse, and use as you would a cooked chicken breast.

Vegan “Chicken” Noodle Soup

2 ounces chicken-of-the-woods mushroom
1/3 cup EACH chopped onion, celery and carrot
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
3 cups vegetable stock
2 tablespoons extra-thin egg noodles
salt and freshly ground black pepper
minced fresh parsley

Prepare the mushroom as described. Chop into bite-size pieces. Reserve. Place the olive oil in a large saucepan, add the onion, and heat gently, covered, until the onion is softened. Add the celery, carrots, bay leaf, thyme, stock, and the reserved mushrooms. Adjust the heat and simmer, covered, until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the noodles, salt as you prefer, and a few grinds of black pepper. Cover the pan and continue to cook until the noodles are done, about 5 more minutes. Serve garnished with minced parsley.

The farmer’s market was also brimming with late summer produce. Plenty of tomatoes, squash and eggplants are still available. Hot peppers are really at peak season now, and cool season greens and brassicas are back. I saw beautiful kohlrabi and cauliflower. Greens, from arugula to tatsoi, seemed to be everywhere. Seeing the bounty at the market today, all from regional farms, reminded me that Knoxville used to be known as the “asparagus patch of the East Tennessee garden spot.” Our soils and climate are ideal for a wide variety of vegetables, and the forested mountains to our east and west support a mind-boggling diversity of edible wild plants, including chicken-of-the-woods.

Speaking of wild plants, now is a good time to go looking for elderberries. The juice makes great jelly and if you have enough you may want to try making wine. Sumac, an important spice in Middle Eastern cooking, as well as in the cuisine of Native Americans, is showing off its bright red, pointed seedheads as if they were flaming torches. Cut the entire head and allow to dry at room temperature. Sumac adds a lemony flavor. Persimmons will be ripening, but you should wait until after a frost to gather them. Wild grapes are ripening, and several cultivated varieties derived from them are available at the farmer’s market.

Now is also a great time to stock up on vegetables that store well without much fuss. Turnips and kohlrabi should go in the crisper or in a root cellar. Sweet potatoes, pumpkins and winter squashes all keep best in warm, dry conditions, such as a dark closet or pantry. Many varieties of apples keep well if cold and dry. Check with the farmer for advice on storing any of the late season produce you see at the farmer’s market.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Careful What You Wish For

"Be careful what you wish for," the old saying goes, "or you might just get your wish." That pretty much covers the situation regarding rain hereabouts. After the driest September in living memory, we have been subjected to October rains that my grandfather would have described as "toad stranglers." Although I don't have an accurate gauge any longer, I would say we are in the 3-4 inch range over the last few days.

As a result, the fall greens crops are lush and abundant, and the snap peas are covered with blooms. Ornamental plants that had not begun to go dormant due to the lack of moisture in September have taken on renewed vigor after repeated soaking. Given the timing of the rain, we can perhaps hope for an especially beautiful fall foliage display this year.

This is a great time of year to salvage the last of summer flavor by making herb-flavored jellies. Tender plants, such as many rosemary and lavender cultivars, will succumb to the cold before long. It makes sense to gather them now. Recipes are abundantly available online. You can substitute one herb for another in any of them, as long as you maintain approximately the same weight of herb leaves. One ounce is a typical quantity. For leafy herbs such as basil and lemon verbena, this could be a quart of leaves stripped from the stems. In the case of tiny rosemary leaves, roughly a cup will produce enough essential oils to flavor a batch of jelly. Be creative! We are going to try lavender and curry leaf jellies for the first time this year, and will keep you posted on the results.

In keeping with our promise to steer the focus of this blog post to local businesses, local products and benefits to the local community, I want to take a moment to call your attention to the veritable renaissance going on along Knoxville's Central Avenue corridor. For many years, this area of town was in decline, with lots of empty store fronts and delapidated industrial buildings dominating the landscape. Recently, however, new restaurants and shops have opened, and the area is fast becoming a great place to dine and shop. Beginning at Broadway and moving north, one finds Holly's Corner in the old Corner Lounge location, with Magpies Bakery next door. Behind them is a place for yoga enthusiasts.

On up the street is Broadway Restaurant Supply, a professional warehouse that does not discourage home cooks from shopping. I have purchased some of my favorite, and least expensive, kitchen utensils there. Expect no frills, however.

At the intersection with Baxter Avenue is Three Rivers Market, surely with one of the deepest selections of local, regional and artisanal products one might find anywhere. They also offer a fine hot buffet with salad bar featuring both vegetarian and carnivore options. Go another block north and you arrive in Happy Holler, so named because of the profusion of bars that once lined this block. Here you will find Central Flats and Taps. The pizzas are great and there are taps to suit every beer taste.

Continuing north, you will move into Knoxville's food history zone, where the two oldest restaurants in town, Rankin and Original Freezo, still do it the way it was done in the 1950s. And then further on out, at the intersection with Springdale, you can discover just how good a sandwich can be at the North Corner Sandwich Shop. While you can always opt for the nearly-perfect Italian sub, try one of the specials. This little shop distinguishes itself with creativity and fine ingredients, such as house-made corned beef.

Next time you have a few extra minutes for lunch, I suggest a drive up Central. Any of the restaurants I mentioned will give you great taste and good value, and they are all locally owned.