Bad Forager: Mistaking Hemlock for Fennel

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Hemlock (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) are in the same family, the Apiaceae or carrot family (which also includes dill and parsnips and chevril and cumin and anise and corriander and parsley and Queen Anne’s lace and more–a very nice family, all around). Hemlock and fennel share characteristics of that family, having those distinctive umbrella shaped flower clusters which beneficial insects adore, but otherwise they don’t look a whole lot alike.  They do grow to about the same size and have similar growth habits, which means they look sorta the same if you look at them with squinted eyes. But fennel foliage is thready, whereas hemlock leaves are triangle shaped and lacy. And fennel has yellow flowers while hemlock has white flowers. If you bruise a hemlock leaf or sniff a flower it smells kinda nasty, whereas all parts of the fennel taste and smell deliciously like anise/licorice.

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Fennel (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Really, all in all, it’s easy to tell them apart.

Except when they are all dried out.

When they’re all dried out, as they are here after a long, bitter summer which has left everything brown and gasping, they look a lot alike. They are both whittled down to nothing but tall brown flower stalks with a few seeds still clinging to the uppermost stems. In this state, they can look remarkably similar.

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Fennel or hemlock seeds? (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

And so I was fooled while out on a food forage hike last week. It was grim pickings out there! Acorns seem to be the only thing left to eat in the wild until the rains come. I’d sampled something unpleasant which lingered on my tongue. I wanted to clear the taste and spotted what I thought was the remains of a fennel plant. I pinched off a couple of seeds and put them in my mouth. They didn’t taste like fennel. They didn’t taste like anything at all. So I think I spit them out. Maybe.

As I was in the midst of doing this, I said to our teacher, Pascal, “Here’s some fennel?” As I said it, I wasn’t entirely sure, because the seeds didn’t taste right.

He said, “That’s not fennel, that’s poison hemlock.”

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Gourmet Foraging and Advanced Acorn Processing

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It’s acorn season in Southern California. I’ve long been interested in acorns, knowing that they were the staple food of the native people who lived here, and I’ve gathered and processed them before. However, once I have the acorn meal, I’ve never known exactly what to do with it. It’s highly nutritious, but I thought (wrongly!) that it was somewhat bland, and all I could do was incorporate acorn meal into baked goods. This weekend, however, I’ve had my eyes opened to the possibilities, thanks to Pascal Baudar and Mia Wasilevich.

pascal and mia at a picnic table

Pascal and Mia putting out a spread: acorn sliders, acorn and tapioca pudding, red cabbage and red onion slaw with wild juniper berries, chocolate truffles infused with white sage and dusted with dehydrated raspberry powder, plum membrillo and beer hopped with yarrow. We were there to learn about acorns, but they fed us well!

Pascal and Mia are high caliber foragers and foodies.  Check out their sites, Urban Outdoor Skills and Transitional Gastronomy, and if you live in the Los Angeles area, you’ll definitely want to experience their forages and food workshops. Their Meetup groups are The Los Angeles Wild Food and Self-Reliance Group and Foraging Foodies LA.

It’s rare to find folks who combine deep food know-how with a love of wild foods. Too often wild foods are considered mere survival foods. Pascal and Mia are using them to develop a uniquely Californian cuisine. Just check out this gallery on Transitional Gastronomy to get a quick picture of what I’m talking about.

On Sunday, Erik and I attended their acorn processing workshop, where we learned some valuable tips regarding acorn processing, and were privileged to eat the finest vegetarian burgers we’ve ever tasted — sliders made with acorns.

acorn sliders

I’ve downed a lot of veggie burgers in my time, and I’ve come to think of them mostly as excuse to eat bread and condiments. I’ve never had a veggie burger good enough to eat on its own. The acorn burgers they treated us to were not just “good for veggie” but some of the tastiest food I’ve ever encountered.

It turns out that acorns have umami qualities, that savoriness that characterizes meat and mushrooms, along with a delicate sweetness. You just need to know how to bring it out.

Mia did say that acorns have unique qualities in how they hold and absorb moisture, so she’s been learning how to handle them. Like any new food, it takes a while to learn the ways of acorns, but it’s worth it.

Here’s a recipe from Mia’s Transitional Gastronomy site for acorn timbales. If you serve these on a bun, instead of in a pool of (amazing looking!) nettle veloute sauce, you will have the acorn burger I experienced this weekend.  Do be sure to note the part where she asks you to refrigerate the mix before cooking. She told us that if the mix doesn’t have time to set up, the patties will fall apart. The recipe doesn’t specify how long to chill, but I believe she said overnight. (You could also make a log of the mix and freeze it for later, like cookies.)

I’m going to forage some acorns of my own this week and see if I can replicate those sliders. In the meanwhile, after the jump  I’m going to share some processing tips that I picked up.

Let us know if any of you process acorns,  and if you have any tips or recipes!

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Starting a Sourdough Starter Talk at Artisinal LA

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I’ll be doing a short talk at Artisinal LA this Sunday October 13th at 4pm on how to start a sourdough starter. Artisinal LA (yep, the “A” word) is a showcase of local small food vendors. In case you’re not in LA this is what I’ll be demonstrating:

Mark Stambler, who co-founded the LA Bread Bakers with me and Teresa Sitz, will also be doing a talk on baking bread at 4pm on Saturday.

Kevin West’s Saving the Season

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I’m thinking of throwing out all my picking and preserving books. Why? Kevin West’s new book Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving blows all those other books out of the water bath.

Full disclosure here: I’ve tasted a lot of West’s jams. I teach a bread making class at the Institute of Domestic Technology. After my bread demo West does a jam making session and I stick around to watch and, hopefully, filtch an extra jar. Those West jams are coveted items around the Root Simple household.

What makes Saving the Season different from other preserving books is West’s masterful use of aromatics and alcohols. As he explains in the introduction, “My goal is for the supplemental flavor to be a faint suggestion–an extra something that you can’t quite put your finger on.” His quince jelly (that I just made) is flavored with a subtle hint of rose geranium. One of the strawberry jam recipes gets a splash of pinot noir. The pickled eggs (that I also made) is mixed with Sriracha. These additions enhance the essential qualities of the main ingredients rather than simply add flavor. It’s an approach that’s masterful and never gimmicky.

There’s also a few surprises. Did you know that you can pickle unripe stone fruit? West’s recipe for pickled green almonds doubles as a way to deal with fruit that needs to be thinned in the spring. And I now know what I can do with all that cardoon I have growing. Yes, you can pickle that.

If that weren’t enough, West has weaved together his recipes with erudite musings. Plato’s theory of forms is contrasted with Buddhism in an essay on kitchen prep that introduces a peach recipe. The grape jelly section is preceded by an analysis of a Nicolas Poussin’s painting. This is the only preservation book I’ve found myself reading for fun.

My threat to get rid of all my preserving books is not hyperbole. Saving the Season really is the definitive book on the subject of pickling and preserving.

West has a website, www.savingtheseason.com, where you can find recipes as well as info about speaking appearances (he’s also great speaker).

The Lament of the Baker’s Wife

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This our flour collection, The Leaning Tower of Pizza.  Erik collects flour like Emelda Marcos collects shoes. The collection is  taking up a good deal of the floor space in our kitchen. Supposedly it will one day be moved to our garage–after the garage is remodeled–but waiting for the garage remodel is somewhat like waiting for Godot, or the Armageddon.

Speaking of which, if Armageddon does arrive, you know what that means? Pizza Party at Root Simple!!! Woot! We could feed the neighborhood for a month. Those are 50 lb bags. They are propped against 5 gallon buckets. A five gallon bucket holds about 30 pounds of flour. I think we’ve got at least 200 lbs of flour piled up here. And where will it all go eventually? Straight to my hips, sweetheart!

And I know I shouldn’t complain. “We have too much food!”  “There’s nowhere to put it!” “All this artisanal sourdough is making me fat!” Boo hoo. This the lament of the baker’s wife.