Ode to an herb

Alex’s herb garden. Close to the kitchen for quick snipping.

West Virginians certainly love their gardens. Even on main streets you can count gardens all the way down. In those without yards, you can spot container gardens, raised beds, and even community gardens growing some beautiful summer fruits.

I’ve yet to produce much more than some tomatoes and squash in vegetable gardens so far, but something I love to always have is an herb garden. So many fragrant recipes call for fresh herbs but they never seem fresh enough from the store (especially in rural areas) so a herb garden is a great cooking tool to make your dishes even more tasty.

What’s in my herb garden?

Chives: Late Saturday mornings you can usually find me running outside barefooted to grab a few chives to throw on my over-easy eggs. I love them sprinkled on top of eggs, mixed in quiche, or scrambled into eggs.

Oregano: Truthfully, I don’t use a lot of fresh oregano but I dry huge bundles of it to use it all year round in almost everything savory. I hope to find more uses for fresh oregano in the future, but for now it’s one of my healthiest, low maintenance plants.

Dill: I love dill. Someday I will grow enough cucumbers to make my own pickles but for now dill goes great in homemade sour cream veggie dips, tossed in roasted vegetables, and even mixed into breads.

Mint: Mint is so classic, everyone knows a great way to use it. I like to make a nice tea, mix it in with fruit salads, use it in Indian foods, and to garnish of summer bakes.

Thyme: Fresh thyme is great for chicken, soups, and even for homemade cough syrup.

Parsley: I didn’t initially have parsley in my current herb garden but I then found so many recipes call for fresh parsley that I made sure to plant it this year. Soups, savory pies, stir-fries, and so much more.

Catnip: Don’t forget something for the kitties! My cats love nibbling on fresh cat nip in the garden or dry it for year-round feline enjoyment.

Felicity loving on her first fresh catnip of the season

Other herbs I’m not currently growing but suggest are basil, rosemary, and cilantro.

Happy gardening!

Nothing Better Than Sautéed In Butter

Sauteed morels in ramp butter with pasta

It’s the end of morel season and it’s been a very good one for these tasty mushrooms. I won’t take credit for these babies though, my boyfriend gave me these because edible mushrooms > roses. These wild mushrooms don’t need much added, just a little heat and a little butter.

Morels can be found throughout West Virginia and many of forested areas in the region. They pop up around the same time as ramps and pair well together. I recommend using a mushroom knife to harvest them, but any method of removal works for a novice. Make sure to use a mesh bag to carry them so the spores will fall out and continue to make your mushroom spot a good mushroom spot. Once you have them in the house, cut them in half down the center and soak them in salt water. Rinse and repeat a few time until your mushrooms are ready for the pan.

My favorite way to eat morels is simply sauteed in butter, but for a full meal I like to add them to pasta. The favorite mushroom dish this year was morels sauteed in ramp butter and tossed with dischi volanti (flying disk pasta). These shapes were perfect for grabbing some of the smaller mushrooms and making each bite fun and delicious. Don’t worry if dischi volanti aren’t stocked in your local Shop’n’Save–most pastas will work for this meal. Top the dish with freshly grated Parmesan.

Simple but delicious. I am already excited for chanterelle season!

The Journey of Salt-Rising Bread

I had my first salt-rising bread from Rising Creek bakery in Mt. Morris, PA. I loved its different flavor and texture but knew it was complicated because of the finicky starter and long rising times, maybe even too complicated for this yeast bread baker. It wasn’t until I committed to teaching a West Virginia heritage foods class for WVU Extension that I felt it was time to tackle this traditional victual.

Starting with the Starter

The starter of any bread is usually the most difficult part, but this is especially true for salt-rising bread. The history of this bread is interesting, coming out of struggle and skill. Appalachian women in the mountains often had no access to store-bought yeast and were left to conduct informal kitchen chemistry to feed families. West Virginia homemakers found a combination of warm, fermented milk; corn meal; sometimes baking soda and sugar; would raise bread similar to yeast. The first known recipe for “Salt Risen Bread” comes from West(ern) Virginia in 1778.

Successful Starter!

Back in my kitchen, I felt like scientist with mason jar beakers. I tried four (4!) different starters so hopefully you won’t have the same fate. In my first starter I added cornmeal to milk that was too hot and ended with a jar of cornbread batter. The second looked better but still got too hot. The struggle of starters is keeping it warm to let it live but not too hot to kill it. Several recipes suggested keeping it in a crock pot but I found setting mine over a pilot light on my stove kept it perfect. For those without an old gas stove, I think a lightly warmed oven might be the best. My third starter started when I went back and added potatoes but I had already started my forth by then.

My fourth and successful starter was from My Recipes. This starter included baking soda and seemed to have the right amount of scalded milk, cornmeal, sugar, and salt. I combined and covered and let sit warm for two days.

Bam! the starter exploded overnight and I could see lots of activity. I added it to the second round proofing where you add flour, water, and wait some more (~4 hours).

Let’s Go Round Three

The third round of adding ingredients you can see the beginning of bread. You finally get to knead the dough (my favorite part!) and put into loaf pans. One more proofing (3 hours, no wonder this bread was made by people who were around the house all day) and then it was ready to pop in the oven. The actual baking part of this was easy and quick. It forms and nice natural crust without effort.

By the end I had three golden loaves ready for ramp butter and toasted cheese. Salt-rising bread has a much different smell (no yeast) and is a tighter texture. I love how different this bread smells. It also last longer than traditional bread (good for pioneers) — it can last a couple of weeks in the fridge so your effort won’t go to waste.

Once you make one batch, it seems a little less daunting and a little closer to Appalachian roots. Follow this recipe (or a family one) to make some lovely loaves of your own. The only change I made to the one found above is that I used butter as my shortening–some don’t call for any at all. It’s up to you kitchen chemist; happy baking!

One of my loaf pans was wider and produced a thinner loaf. Lessons learned.

Tips from the kitchen:

Plan out all the rising so you don’t end up baking bread at 1 am like me.

Try your own starters and warm places. No recipe suggested over pilot lights but it was a perfect temp for me.

Do what seems intuitive and expect some failure at first.

Ramp Pesto

Ramp pesto by Alex Coffman

This recipe is a quick way to use lots of ramps if you’re tired of fried ramps and potatoes or want to make something that will stretch their life. I absolutely love pestos for their flexibility and ease. You can put them on pastas, sandwiches, burgers, grilled cheese, and more. They also keep well in the fridge so you can prolong the life of whatever herb or greens you have around.

While I had experimented with pestos before, I learned how to make “proper” pesto with my Italian friend when visiting her in Rome in 2014. They, of course, have access to the best parm cheese, the beautiful basil, high quality olive oil, and good pine nuts. It was amazing to make pesto with a native and I try to keep that educational session in mind whenever I make pesto.

For this ramp pesto (or really any strong or wild green you may use) I suggest using walnuts over pine nuts. Pine nuts have a beautiful light flavor that will be covered by stronger flavors. Without further ado, here is my (approximated) recipe. I typically eyeball it and add more ingredients as necessary. Taste it and observe the texture as you go until it’s what you want out of a pesto.

WV Ramp Pesto

15-20 ramps, cleaned

4-5 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/2 teaspoon of salt

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan) cheese

A squeeze of lemon juice

1/2 cup of whole or pieced walnuts

Blend together in a food processor until desired consistency. You may need to add additional olive oil as you go until it is a spreadable consistency. Enjoy on pasta, toasted buns of burgers, or a grilled sandwich.

Last tip: if you use it on pasta, make sure to leave a little extra pasta water in the pot for the pesto to mix with for a smoother consistency. Also, use pastas with ridges or curls to ‘grab’ the pesto.

Welcome to The Wild West Virginian

Hello and thanks for joining me. I’m very excited about this blog and its potential; I hope you will find it useful as well. I wanted to start off with a little about myself and my mission.

My name is Alex Coffman. I currently live in Petersburg, West Virginia serving as the WVU Extension 4-H Agent in Grant County. I am from north central West Virginia and am a 10th generation West Virginian. I have always loved these hills but it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I began realizing the amazing edibles that were all around me.

My immediate family members were not foragers in particular, although we did pick blueberries and blackberries occasionally. My sister-in-law, a biologist, began introducing us to ginseng and cranberry bogs. I also made friends with and dated some wonderful foragers who taught me about ramps, morels, redbuds, cranberries, and so much more in the world of Appalachian edibles.

Baking and cooking are my passions and combining wild foods and home cooking has been my favorite past time. Here, I will share recipes I come across, ones we make up, suggestions and so much more. I will not, probably, share exact locations of my foraging sites because life still needs some mystery.

A few final things looking ahead:

Sustainability: I want to make sure everyone reading this blog understands that I am doing my best to harvest all these foods completely sustainably. Each plant, tree, river, and bush can only handle minimal harvest so I am conscious (and still learning) about responsible harvest. Please make sure you are doing the same. If you purchase wild foods from someone, ask if they are harvesting sustainably so we all have lots of wild foods for generations to come.

Leave No Trace:  I am the current Leave No Trace Advocate for West Virginia.  If you are ever harvesting on public lands, please make sure to read all the laws, follow all the rules, and keep wild food wild. We want all people to be able to enjoy the outdoors. Sustainable harvest can work in conjunction with Leave No Trace as long as you stay aware and cognizant. Whenever you are outdoors, always follow the Leave No Trace ethics for sustainable public land use.

Thanks for reading and I can’t wait to get started!