No, not those kind. I’m talking about your tasty - and legal, non-hallucinogenic - standard White Button mushroom variety that can be savored in soups, salads, pizzas, and casseroles. I can also say magical, because the growing process is quite engaging.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Rose, owner of River Valley Ranch & Kitchens, in Burlington, Wis. The farm specializes in mushrooms, not only White Button but also varieties such as Portabella, Crimini, Oyster, and Shiitake.
Until then, I was unsure of how mushrooms were grown. I was intrigued to see that they are grown year-round in cool, dim growing houses that are ventilated and temperature-controlled. As we walked in, Portabella and Crimini mushroom’s poked their domed tops out from a combination of 80-percent compost and a mixture of peat moss and limestone.
And the best part was when he told me that River Valley Ranch sells home growing kits. I could grow mushrooms right in my basement!
I picked up a White Button mushroom kit. There were two bags, one with compost and mycelium (a thread-like vegetative part of a fungus), and one with casing soil. I prepared the compost and soil per enclosed instructions. Everything was done right in the box; easy-peasy and very little mess.
After about five days, I noticed a threadlike growth of mycelium on the surface, just like the instructions said. Only slight watering was required; just enough to keep the compost moist.
White button mushrooms pop their dome heads from compost in my mushroom kit.
But the real rush happened several days later when pinhead-sized tops developed and rapidly puffed into the mushrooms that I later enjoyed in so many of my vegetarian dishes. Growth happened rapidly once the mushrooms surfaced (they seemed to grow by the minute), and the kit yielded plenty of those White Button beauties for a couple of months.
These harvested white button mushrooms will soon find their way into my homemade cream of mushroom soup.
Like most gardening and farming, seeing the many stages of food grown from soil to table really does feel like magic. I’ve found the mushroom kits a convenient and economical way to produce food indoors during a harsh winter climate like we have in Wisconsin. With all of the agricultural advancements in recent years to extend the growing season and sustainably grow food indoors, does anyone grow other produce indoors? What methods are used? Window greenhouses? Aquaponics?
For years, I’ve held a firm belief that pumpkins are one of the most fun and useful squash varieties in existence. These guys provide tasty pie, they can be carved into wicked Halloween decorations, and their innards are packed with seeds that can be roasted into a healthy snack. While I don’t have enough space on my property to grow a proper pumpkin patch, I am fortunate to live within a short drive of Swan’s Pumpkin Farm in Franksville, Wis.
Doug and I set out on a brisk and overcast October afternoon to find our ideal pumpkins. As we parked in Swan’s vast parking lot and headed toward the entrance, the clouds seem to have lifted as we sighted the expansive pumpkin patch in the distance. The Swan family and their employees do up the pre-halloween festivities right. Once a poultry farm, the Swans changed course a couple of decades ago and specialize in pumpkins, and with that came all sorts of fall events for kids and kids-at-heart.
One of the pumpkin patches at Swan's Pumpkin Farm, where we get out pumpkins every year.
While I’m certainly a kid at heart, we wanted our pumpkins. We dashed past the stage that featured a lively bluegrass band and past the line for the hayrides. We paused briefly at the concession stand that offered cider doughnuts and popcorn, but the orange in the distant pumpkin patch called us. We zigzagged around children who appeared to be in awe, and past parents who appeared weary.
Yet, I did just have to stop to pet and feed the goats at the petting zoo.
As we pushed a rented wheelbarrow through the pumpkin patch, my favorite lines from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” came to mind. Choosing a couple of tiny pie pumpkins was easy, but for carving, our ideal pumpkins had to be just right. Each one had to have a large, smooth carving face. It had to sit just right to be properly displayed during Halloween, so we positioned each pumpkin for consideration. If it rolled or sat like it had imbibed in too much hard apple cider, it had to be passed by.
Soon Doug and I were one our way home with two pie pumpkins and three fine carving pumpkins - all for under $20.
We chose an assortment of both free-hand art and stencils for the faces on the carving pumpkins. Cleaning out the pumpkins and scooping out the pulp and seeds was the most tedious, but soon we had a colander full of seeds for roasting. I rinsed them and let them sit overnight to bake the following day.
I let the pumpkin seeds dry overnight and roast them the next day.
After we drew the faces on the pumpkins and carved out the designs, they looked nice and spooky when illuminated. Our hound dog, Lenny, gave his sniff of approval, especially at “his” jack-o-lantern that featured canine-themed art of a howling wolf.
Our jack-o-lanterns are Lenny the hound-approved.
Our jack-o-lanterns would certainly impress the little ghouls and goblins who would come by for Trick-or-Treat, but my mind was on those yummy seeds yet to come. The seeds in the colander were still a little damp, which is how I liked to prepare them. My preferred method is to spread the seeds out on a cookie sheet, toss a couple pats of butter on the seeds (which, of course, melts into the seeds), and sprinkle them with sea salt. I put the tray of seeds into the oven pre-heated to 275 degrees. Every 15 minutes or so, I stirred the seeds and added a little more butter and salt, if needed. I roasted the seeds for about an hour.
The roasted seeds pleasantly scented the house and made a satisfying crunchy snack as we watched Game 4 of the World Series (I’ll keep the post neutral and not divulge which team I’m rooting for).
Roasted and ready for snacking!
Pumpkin pies coming next...
In the past, I’ve seasoned my roasted pumpkin seeds with a seasoned salt blend from a local spice company, or turned the seeds into a sweet snack with a cinnamon and sugar blend, which gave them a scent and taste similar to the roasted almonds sold in paper cones at festivals. I’ve even gotten brave and spiced the seeds with a chipotle blend. Does anyone have other seasonings they prefer to use on roasted pumpkin seeds?
My grandma was an urban homesteader well before the term became popular, or even before the term existed. Besides reusing and recycling almost everything, as well as gardening and baking, I remember how on any given summer day Fels-Naptha-cleansed laundry flapped from the clotheslines as we kids darted around the yard, dodging flailing slips, housecoats, and Turkish towels. Grandma never explained to us why the towels were called “Turkish.” They were just Turkish towels, so there. (I later learned that they’re basically just any towels made from cotton terry cloth, and I was a bit disappointed by the blasé definition.)
Grandma had these neat wooden clothesline poles - or props, as she called them - that propped the line up high to keep sheets off the ground and allow for maximum air flow. She even painted the props her signature “aqua” shade, a color she made up by mixing two paint hues. Don’t ever call it blue or green in front of Grandma.
Our family cousin Dennis rides his bike past one of Grandma's clothesline prop poles during the 1950s.
“Aqua,” she had always corrected. Everything in the yard and home was accented with “aqua,” from the clothesline props to the decorative bricks in the yard to the trim on the house. Her neighbors had tried to imitate the color, with little success.
Unfortunately, Grandma’s cool aqua clothesline props were lost over time. I’ve been hanging laundry outdoors for years, but had trouble finding clothesline props like Grandma had. Metal or aluminum props were available at hardwood stores and online, but they just weren’t the same. They also averaged around $25.
My mom found a piece of scrap trim that measured 1” thick by 2” wide, which was just about the size of Grandma’s clothesline props. The scrap wood stretched seven feet long, which was the perfect height to raise wet laundry toward the sun and wind so Mother Nature could do her thing.
We measured and marked a “V” shape at one end and cut out the shape with a jigsaw. That was the end to prop up the clothesline. At the other end, we angled the corners to shape a point so the pole would stab into the ground and stay put. We sanded the edges, and presto! We had recreated Grandma’s clothesline props.
The Top of My DIY Clothesline Prop
The Bottom of the DIY Clothesline Prop
I found more 1” thick by 2” wide strips of wood and cut those in the same manner. After a good sanding, the homemade props have lasted several years.
Due to both environmental consciousness and a frugal nature, I’ve decided to go all out with recreating Grandma’s laundry day. I usually have a bar of Fels-Naptha laundry soap on hand for stains, so I decided to ditch my usual liquid detergent and go with Fels-Naptha. The bar grates just as easily as any hard cheese, and a handful of the soap shavings tossed into a full load on the warm cycle got everything really clean. Estimated cost per load: 42 cents. Also, no plastic jug; just a biodegradable paper wrapper.
It's not cheese, but grated Fels-Naptha laundry bar soap.
Best of all, the scent reminded me of Grandma and her backyard on summer days.
I’ve also tried to recreate Grandma’s “aqua” paint color to apply to the homemade clothesline poles, but just like Grandma’s neighbors, I couldn’t get it right.
Canning in all forms scared me, mostly due to the thought that if done incorrectly, I could accidentally poison myself or loved ones with botulism. I purchased books about canning and preserving, but had yet to crack one open. They eventually found their way to my donation pile for Goodwill. I stuck to the safe route of a freezer to preserve summer produce from gardens and farmers’ markets. The method is rather foolproof, and the only gear needed are some good freezer bags and containers.
Then four quart-sized glass jars of my homemade vegetable stock expanded and cracked apart in my freezer. I endured a few tiny, painful cuts while cleaning up the mess. Maybe the freezer method was not always foolproof.
“Canning’s no big deal,” people told me. They explained how they just poured hot food into a hot jar that had been sterilized in an oven or dishwasher and then made sure the seal had popped. That seemed too easy. I was still skeptical.
“You don’t boil anything in a water bath kettle or pressure canner?” I asked.
“Nah!” This answer was often accompanied by a dismissive wave of the hand. “I’ve been doing it this way for years, and I’m still alive.”
People also once thought it was no big deal to ride in cars without seat belts, or let kids play with mercury. I felt more research was necessary, so I dug out the canning books from my donation pile. The more I read, the less intimidated I felt.
For low acidic foods, like most vegetables, a pressure canner was required. That sounded scary. My wild imagination quickly envisioned the thing blowing its lid in my kitchen, food splattered everywhere, like something you’d see the Three Stooges do. I decided that I’d get to pressure canning later.
Yet water-bath canning, used for high-acidic foods like most tomatoes, looked pleasant, like, well, a calm and relaxing bath. It seemed that if you can boil water, use basic measurements, and watch a clock, there should be no problem. I found Canning and Preserving for Dummies and Easy Homemade Preserves really good resources for learning the basic method.
First, I had to get some tools. I picked up a canning set that included a water bath kettle, a jar rack, and all the fun gadgets like a see-through wide-mouth funnel and a magnetic jar lid lifter. My local True Value had just as fine a selection of canning gear as any big-box store. The utensils to get started, including new jars, cost under $50. The kettle is well constructed and will likely outlive me, and it is so large that you could bathe a baby in it.
My water canning kettle and the fun gadgets that came with it.
I started with something simple – salsa. I confess that I did stray from the recipe slightly, despite warnings in my how-to book to follow recipes exactly. I’m brave and usually willing to face spicy foods head-on, but 10 jalapeno peppers just seemed a bit too much. Yet I briefly wondered if omitting a few peppers would end up poisoning anyone.
My boyfriend Doug often broke away from his Guitar Player magazine to check my progress. He gave a satisfying sniff over the kettle of boiling salsa and returned to the living room, carrying a contented smile with him.
I was ready to can my creation. Using the jar lifter, I removed the empty sterilized jars from the boiling water to dry ... but how? The book didn’t specify. Air-dry? Wipe with a towel? No, that wouldn’t make sense to wipe sterilized jars with anything. I panicked and returned the jar to the bubbling water. The online canning community concurred that air-drying jars was just fine. I set the jars on a baking rack, but still worried if we’d end up poisoned.
Using the wide-mouth funnel, I filled the jars, mindful of the headspace. I secured the lids with the screw bands and submerged the filled jars in the boiling water bath for the required time. Was my water hot enough? Would we end up dead around the table? I left the jars in for an additional five minutes, just to be sure.
Doug returned to the kitchen to watch me gingerly remove the jars from the boiling water. Shortly after I placed the jars on the baking rack, we heard that sucking POP. We high-five’d, but the true test was still yet to come. Would we wind up on our way to the hospital in an ambulance?
After consuming all three jars of salsa within two weeks of my first canning experiment, we’re still alive and didn’t come close to a trip to the ER. I’ve since gained confidence and canned more salsa and tomato sauce. The how-to canning books are now on a shelf in my kitchen.
While my first canning experience went seamlessly, has anyone ever had a first-time canning disaster? And has anyone ever shared my paranoia of accidental poisoning?
My first canning experiment - salsa - was a success.