Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What am I Thankful For? Focus.

An oyster mushroom. This year's sabbatical has enabled
me to focus on things in a new way. 
Years ago, when I was a night-desk copy editor at The Boston Globe, we had a perk that took me a little getting used to. It was the union-negotiated "eye break," a twice-nightly time when we were supposed to get up from our seats at the computer and look away, so that we reduced eye strain. It didn't matter if we were in the midst of a tough edit, trying to think of a catchy headline, or verifying some obscure fact; when the copy desk chief called "eye break!", we broke. But I soon learned to appreciate the benefits. Because one of the causes of computer-related eye strain is the unchanged visual focus, I would always make a point of looking across the newsroom as far as I could for a few minutes, then looking at various middle distances, before the break was over and the editing resumed.

This year, when we go around the Thanksgiving table and answer the question, "What are you grateful for?" my answer will be obvious. I'm grateful for my Maine sabbatical, which has felt like one giant eye break. That is, it has represented the chance for me to undertake a profound change in focus -- not just visually, of course, but in every way I can imagine. Rather than being bombarded with communication that forces me to multitask, I can spend hours upon hours each day engaged in one task at a time. And whether it's a project like transporting a huge pile of manure onto gardening beds by shovel and wheelbarrow or a DIY cooking exercise like making tofu or sauerkraut or almond milk, the result has been nothing short of invigorating.

When our Let's Lunch crowd decided we would talk about gratitude in our posts this month, I knew what I'd write. There are so many layers to my thankfulness about this year, but primarily I thank the Post for letting me have the time off, and I thank my sister and brother-in-law for letting me live with them. It's been an exercise in patience for my sister and BIL, I'm sure. Peter wanted a dedicated full-time farmhand/student, no doubt, but what he got was a bumbling part-timer -- and one with no shortage of morning grouchiness. He is a fount of knowledge about building and growing, and is amazingly patient with me. Among other things, Rebekah has had to put up with an overcrowded-to-bursting refrigerator and pantry, as I have brought in countless spices and condiments and then forgot to use half of them. They've gotten some things out of it, I realize -- I've been cooking my heart out, for example -- but even that comes with a downside, such as Rebekah's extra nine pounds.

I think it's clear that generally, though, they've given more than they've gotten.

Take the DIY food projects as an example. Rebekah has been doing some of this stuff for dozens of years, and she is putting up with my questions about food safety and pH levels and botulism risks without judgment or defensiveness. Most of all, though, she has helped me indulge in the luxury of exploring all sorts of things I've never explored in and out of the kitchen. Most recently, she has been sharing her growing knowledge of mushroom foraging; she has an obvious aptitude, and is pursuing more education, but in the meantime she's telling me all she knows, and we're going foraging whenever time permits. In keeping with the change-of-focus theme, our forays have been exercises in awareness and concentration. If I look too hard, I can't see a thing, but once I relax, things start to become obvious. Kind of like life, don't you think?

Lately, the most common edible mushroom we've found is the oyster, which happens to be one of our favorites for its meaty texture and mild earthy flavor. I've made autumn-in-a-bowl pasta dishes, she has made soups, and we've both sauteed and roasted them, using the induction stove, the wood cookstove, the outdoor brick bread oven. But perhaps my favorite use of them is pickling, which I learned from her. She has used a recipe for the last few years from "Outstanding in the Field," and this year she let me try my hand at it after we found some particularly beautiful oyster mushrooms. I made two versions -- the original, and then this one in which I swapped in some Asian ingredients for a different take.

We won't know what we think until we pop the jars open, probably at Thanksgiving. But no matter what they taste like, I'll be grateful I had the time, the focus, and the support to make them -- and so much else.

Asian-Style Pickled Oyster Mushrooms

Adapted from "Outstanding in the Field," by Jim Denevan. Makes 4 pints.

 2 pounds oyster mushrooms
2 medium carrots, thinly sliced
3 cups white wine vinegar of at least 5 percent acidity (check the label)
1 cup water
1 cup Shaoxing (Chinese cooking) wine
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons pickling salt
1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
4 whole star anise
4 short stalks lemongrass, cut in half lengthwise
4-inch piece thick ginger root, peeled and cut into ?-inch slices

Wash four 1-pint glass canning jars, their rings and lids in a dishwasher or with hot, soapy water and rinse them thoroughly. Place the jars in the canner (or in a large pot fitted with a metal rack) and cover with hot water. Bring the water to a boil and boil vigorously for 10 minutes. You may leave the jars in the hot water while you prepare the mushrooms.

A few minutes before you are ready to transfer the mushrooms to the jars, pour simmering -- not boiling -- water over the lids to soften the seal, or follow the manufacturer's instructions.

Use a damp cloth to wipe any dirt or sand from the mushrooms. Cut any larger mushrooms into halves or quarters; leave them whole if they are a manageable size. Set the mushrooms aside.

Combine the carrots, vinegar, water, wine, sugar, pickling salt, peppercorns, red pepper flakes, star anise, lemongrass, and ginger in a large pot. Bring the mixture to a boil and then add the mushrooms. Bring the mixture back to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

Drain the jars and pack the mushrooms into the hot, sterilized jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace at the top of each jar. Pour the hot pickling liquid into the jars to cover the mushrooms. Thoroughly wipe the rims and threads of the jars with a clean, damp cloth. Set the lids in place and screw on the rings. Any jar that has more than 1/2 inch headspace should be refrigerated, not processed, and eaten within a couple of weeks.

Fill the canner with hot water and add the jars; the jars should be covered by 1 to 2 inches. Cover the canner and bring the water to a boil. Start timing once the water reaches a boil and process for 10 minutes. Using a jar lifter, remover the jars from the pot and let cool for at least 12 hours in a location without any drafts. To test the seal after this time, press down on the lid; it should not move when pressed.

Set aside in a cool, dry and dark place for at least 2 weeks before using. The pickled wild mushrooms will keep for up to 1 year. Discard if at any time the mixture looks moldy, foamy or murky, or if it does not smell right when opened.


  1. What a beautiful post! And those mushrooms sound absolutely wonderful.

    1. Thanks so much! If you give them a try, let me know how they go...

  2. How wonderful that you're reaping the benefits of un-multitasking. Very Zen! The combination of flavors in your mushroom pickles sounds lovely.

    1. Thanks, Linda! I think I'm going to start calling it uni-tasking!

  3. I multitask all the time... I do not remember when was the last time I was doing only one thing engaging my entire self into it... I miss it.

    1. It's probably pretty clear that I highly recommend it, Ewa. Even if you're able to carve out an hour here or there to do just one thing: a class, or reading, or a walk (without checking your smartphone, of course!), try it...

    2. yeah... with two small kids,two blogs, new puppy who does not seem to get the idea of potty training, new business and tones of laundry... well... I probably should take a nap right now instead of sitting here and staring at the screen.

  4. This post is so timely. I've got a huge amount of time on my own suddenly, now that I am both free-lancing AND single. The temptation is to stuff the day with five million things, so mindfulness and gratitude are two things very much in my heart these days.

    And I'm DYING to try chinese inspired pickled mushrooms. I wonder if they'd be good with storebought?

    1. Good luck! As for store-bought shrooms for pickling, if they're super-fresh and firm, they should be good. If you have access to an Asian supermarket, see what they might have. I love king oyster mushrooms, which I often see at Asian markets, and those would work well. There also are some pretty cool grow-your-own-mushroom kits that feature oyster mushrooms, so you might check one of those out. Here's a link:

  5. I really like mushrooms. They always have excited me when I taste them with my burgers, soups, salads, etc. I'm sure those Asian Pickled Mushrooms are delicious. With mushrooms being so amazing, I can't for the life of me think of a reason why Mario always wanted to smash them. Heh! :-)

    1. He clearly wanted to keep you from eating them, Carl!

  6. Dear Joe,
    I found your blog through Twitter and I absolutely love it. Very inspirational! And I can't wait to put my hands on that book of yours:0)

    1. Thanks so much! Appreciate the kind words. Let me know what you think of Serve Yourself -- and keep an eye out for the new book, Eat Your Vegetables, in August 2013...