Dates for Fall Forays

Laetiporus cincinnatus (Photo Thomas Westgard)

(Photo Thomas Westgard)

We’re setting dates for fall forays, and will update as soon as we have dates and times:

Each session will include a light lunch and snacks. Bring a cooler or cooler bag to keep you mushrooms cool while traveling.

Either August 30 or 31 – Afternoon foraging for mushrooms and berries partnered with a liqueur making session at Meztisoy Market in Pilsen (the hold up is reserving the room for the evening session). Attendees will be able to take home fruit liqueur and sample last years. Beginner experience level – Chicago Area Far South.

Either September 13/14th Mushroom foray and wild medicinal plants (with Chris Mayor of Chicago Wilderness School) afterward a session on tincture making, Beginner skill level. Chicago Area North.

Either September 27th or 28th will be a mushrooms foray/wild plant foray with a cooking demonstration (wild food meal with bread baking?) and meal at Meztisoy. Beginner/intermediate skill level. Chicago Area TBA.

In early October we may have an overnight, camping in Brown County Indiana. This will be an all day Saturday foraging trip, Open fire cooking, the farm raises organic chickens, pigs and the location of our mushroom logs. It’s directly across the street from Yellow Wood State Forest and a 10 minute drive from Brown County State Forest in Nashville, Indiana. Bonfire Saturday night, camping, then Sunday we’ll breakfast together, and hit the woods again before lunch and cook a community lunch before heading back to Chicago. Intermediate/experienced skill level.

What’s Fruiting in the Upper Midwest, This Week!

All I have to say to you is to get to yout favorite woods immediately!

If you’re interested in old news, the Chicago Chanterelle harvest was at an all time low! We had such fantastic early rains, that just dried up for about four weeks, and then nothing after a four inch rain. My favorite spots got flooded and didn’t produce, none of them. During the drought time this year I manged about 12 small Chanterelles, and I managed a literal handful after the massive rain. Some friends in the far Western Suburbs did alright, as somehow more regular rain graced them with something to harvest.


Over the last two summers the Chicago region had no rain in July and it held off until the first week in August. But even during those years the Chanterelles flushed for a week or two, though in much lower quantities than usual.

My favorite Wild Blackberry spot had barely flowered this year, and when I came back to it two weeks ago there were no ripe berries. A friend stopped over there and told me that most of the ripe berries were already picked. I think a Friday trip to the spot, before the weekenders get them, is definitely in order!

The good news is that foraging for Wild Grapes and Elderberries might set a new record year! Last week I gathered about three pounds of Elderberries and sold them to the second restaurant I visited. Yesterday I went out to my spot and harvested about 10 pounds more, and on the way home noticed a wild grape that is slightly sweet and a little tart, with no tannin and only three seeds. The small grapes will make excellent sauces and an incredible wine. I’m actuallyhoping they don’t sell tomorrow and I can selfishly make some wild wine with them. I managed about 15 pounds before I decided I need to get a ladder to get the last ten pounds.

Wild Grape

There are many wild grapes, and grapes often interbreed into poor varieties, but when you come across a tart and sweet variety remember where it is.

This is a banner year for edible Crab Apples. My friend David Odd harvested about 15 pounds of wildized Dolgo Crab Apples last week. This week I found three trees, long forgotten about, with all sun side branches loaded. The Dolgo Apple which I’ve heard referred to as the Korean Crab Apple is light yellow interior with a tear drop elongated shape and if ripe has a light tartness, and almost ripe has a tart flavor great for sauces and jellies. It’s one of the few Crab Apples you can eat out of the hand.

When fully ripe this Crab Apple is sweet and crunchy, its elongated shape is a sure sign that you've found the right tree.

When fully ripe this Crab Apple is sweet and crunchy, its elongated shape is a sure sign that you’ve found the right tree.

This week, separately we both found a small round Crab Apple that has a bright pink interior that is tart without any sign of bitterness that will make a great apple sauce, jelly, or compliment as a savory sauce for a braised meat dish.

This small red Crab Apple has a pink interior and a tart finish. Be sure you pick only from trees without tannin, some look a likes will pucker your mouth.

This small red Crab Apple has a pink interior and a tart finish. Be sure you pick only from trees without tannin, some look a likes will pucker your mouth.

Last week we spotted about five pound of Letiporus sulphereus, the Chicken of the Woods Mushroom, all at its peak of freshness. She made a Vegan Lentil Pecan Chicken Salad that was simply amazing hot or cold! The difference in flavors, textures and color had me guessing that I was eating a fine meat dish.

Dawn Chicken 2Dawn Chicken 1

With the cool weather and rain in middle August, the Maitake are already fruiting, an 11 pound specimen was found in the woods just North of the City of Chicago this afternoon by David Odd of Odd Produce. The earliest I’ve ever found one is the last week of August.

This 11 Pound Specimen will be on dinner plates in one of Chicago's finest restaurants by Wednesday night. (Photo Dave Odd of Odd Produce, Chicago's Wild Food Supplier)

This 11 Pound Specimen will be on dinner plates in one of Chicago’s finest restaurants by Wednesday night.
(Photo Dave Odd of Odd Produce, Chicago’s Wild Food Supplier)

Last year was so dry until late September that Maitake didn’t really fruit until the first weeks of October, though with phenomenal results. With the average rains, though off the usual schedule I predict this early Maitake fruiting will be the usual 200 pound local harvest, as opposed to the bounteous year like last year. Ringed Honey Mushrooms are out in certain spots, and last week I found a few aborted Entolomas directly at the bark line of a dead tree – but not enough for a meal, surely most of the fall mushrooms are coming along very soon.

I’ll update in a few days as I head out to finish both the Wild Grape Harvest, and the Elderberry Harvest, while searching for Chicken Mushroom and very early Maitake.

Liqueur Time! Making Delicious Homemade Liqueurs is Easier Than You Think!

It’s been about four years since we our first Nocino. The Italian Walnut Liqueur is a staple for many families fall meals, used as an aperitif, or a digestif – served before or after a meal, and sometimes as a topping for iced cream, fall is when it’s most enjoyed, but we make enough to break a little out when we really want to wow guests.

Black Walnut stains, you, your tools and your clean up towels, but it's second to butternut!

Black Walnut stains, you, your tools and your clean up towels, but it’s second to butternut!

That first batch was terrible! It was bitter – we had added foraged Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), thinking for some reason that the addition would make a nice balance to the sweetness we’d add later. It was terrible, bitter, full of tannin from the walnuts and bitterness from the wild prairie plant.  I gave up on it after trying it, filtering it several times, and letting it age until fall. Nothing helped. A year later I had stripped an antique American Walnut table and was researching old fashioned, home made stains. My sweety mentioned that we had had made our own stain extracting the worst out of the black walnuts.

It was about 100 degrees, and I knelt on the grass to test the “Walnut Stain” on a piece of scrap wood, you couldn’t see sunlight through the bottle. The stain took well, but the sweet and nutty smell coming from the warm wood was too much. I looked at the bottle that had aged two years, I looked at the stain sample, and looked at the bottle again. I picked up the cork to smell, then I actually licked the cork – no tannin!

Slowly I put what I had been considering the bottle of walnut stain to my lips and took a tentative swallow. It was amazing, simply delicious, if anything it was too overpowering with the nut flavor. We had succeeded, though it took two years of aging. Frankly, this was one of the most amazing drink additives, mixers, or liqueurs I’d ever tried!

Last year we kind of went nuts (pun intended) making Nocino, Wild Blackberry, Elderflower, Elder Berry, Vanilla, Vanilla Pomegranate Liqueurs as well as Vodka infusions of Rosemary, and Cardamon (instead of Moscow, think Mumbai Mule!)

The Elderflower is simply amazing – a fruity, flower perfumed liqueur with hint of vanilla and slight notes of citrus, it’s too flavorful to drink more than a slight ounce on the rocks, or as a mix into a Left Bank, a Martini with white wine, Elderflower liqueur and a London Dry Gin.

The Elderberry Liqueur has an incredible flavor, powerful fruity flavor, almost like a Jolly Rancher – Elderberry flavor! Although nice as an aperitif, the best use was in a mixed drink, 2 ounces of good vodka and 1/2 ounce of liqueur on the rocks was lovely.

After investing in several cases of .375 liqueur bottles with which we could present our liqueurs while entertaining or as hostess gifts and Christmas presents we found that we couldn’t fill them all. Make no mistake, this won’t happen again.

Extraction of the essential flavors from nuts and flowers is startlingly simple, and as I found out, even ridiculous mistakes can be overcome with aging. Previous years we’ve used excellent vodka, cheap vodka, tried good rums, cheap tequila, and even mixed bourbon in the steeping. All our experiments worked out.

The cheapest vodka, with a horrible cleaning fluid smell (You know who you are Mr. Boston!) but ages down into a mellow and tame liqueur given enough time – the best vodka also makes a fine liqueur and had the additional benefit of not needing to be aged an extra six months.

Our local Elderberry bushes had already given up their flower petals, and we had all but given up for a batch this year. Yesterday afternoon, after giving up a last minute peach picking trip we settled on a trip to one of my favorite woodlands in Chicago for an foray to find early Chanterelles. While we found no Chanterelles we did find several previously unnoticed Elderberry bushes.  I pulled less than 1/4 from each bush, settling for a decent sized batch of Elderflower Liqueur, but the woods kept giving and we passed bush after bush in full flower.

My friend Jenny and I cleaned the flower from the poisonous and bitter stems, spending an hour or two carefully pulling only the petals. At some point Jenny came up with the idea of keeping the flowers – stems and all, in a plastic bag and giving them a good shake. After a few minutes she had double what we had pulled from hand and we quickly soaked out bounty in Everclear Grain alcohol.


After reading all winter about flavor extraction, earlier this spring we settled on the use of 195 proof grain alcohol. While there is supposedly no flavor the grain alcohol has a uniquely laboratory aftertaste, but the flavor extraction is said to be more pure and supposedly faster.

It’s been about 6 weeks since I started this post, and have come with the frustrating idea that we should have run our Everclear through a Brita type filter, some sand filter with activated charcoal to take the worst of the raw liquor flavors out – but this good news I managed to harvest over 10 pounds of Elderberries yesterday, some of which will go into an Elderberry Liqueur, and some will go to some of Chicago’s finest restaurants. Some of the bushes have double that amount ripening right now, but that’s another post!

Remember, only the darkest berries are ripe. I usually ignore the green, pick all the berries off the stem carefully, then drop them in a bowl of cool water, what floats gets tossed int eh compost pile!

Remember, only the darkest berries are ripe. I usually ignore the green, pick all the berries off the stem carefully, then drop them in a bowl of cool water, what floats gets tossed in the compost pile!

My sweetheart came home from a trip to her parents in New Palestine, Indiana this afternoon (about six weeks ago now) with Black Walnuts for Nocino, a bag of Butternuts and a bag of “Sweet” Hickory Nuts (as opposed to Pignut Hickory Nuts) and we spent the afternoon chopping and bottling our bounty. We’ve got four or five quarts of Black Walnut, two quarts of Hickory Nut and two quarts of Butternut as well as five quarts of Elderflower.

We’ve now cut the Elderflower Liqueur and added simple and some other very light spices, and poured off the Nocino, though we’ve not cut it or flavored it, we’ll wait for to age at 190 proof for a few more weeks, then add our Vanilla Everclear – my partner has a co-worker who travels to Western Africa each year to a family vanilla plantation, and of course, again, graced us with a half dozen very fresh vanilla beans. This year we decided to try making a Dry Vermouth out of the Black Walnuts. We’ve been steeping the alcohol infused walnuts in a decent Pinot Grigio in the refrigerator for three weeks, and Saturday we’ll pour it off and run through coffee filters and spice it up and add a little more alcohol to bring the proof up to about 18 24, and let the spices of their things.

We’ll also experiment with a small batch of Nocino, and use the Wine to bring the alcohol level down to about 80 proof, hoping that that will bring a different dimension to the entire process.

The Hickory and Butternuts are still steeping, waiting until we have an evening together to process. I’m sure that the solvent can’t take any more flavor out than it already has, so idling away beneath the sink shouldn’t hurt anything (Alright you purists, comment!)

We’ll be using straight vodka to make our Elderberry Liqueur, (Costco’s Kirkland brand is said to be a neutral vodka that doesn’t impart flavor at a great price) while this takes longer to pull the flavors out we don’t have to age as long, and a Jolly Rancher liqueur might be just what we need next month as the days grow shorter.

With the case of 12 – .750 liter bottles we’ll have about 34 quarts of 60 proof liqueur, the traditional strength.

Enjoy the encouragement, and whatever you do, don’t not do it!