I wrote a book.

I wrote a book.

I accomplished my biggest life goal today. So here is my long, exhaustive story of writing a book, in case you are interested in how this journey has come to an end: From the time when I first learned to read and write, excelling in all the advanced reading and English classes in school, I have loved books and everything about them. I wrote poems in second grade that won contests and were published in a book. I wrote and drew children’s stories by the time I was 10, hand bound and printed from a typewriter, dreaming of having them published someday. I devoured the nature books my grandma and uncle had on the bookshelves, even dictionaries and encyclopedias, fascinated by the complexity of words and their ability to transform a reader with knowledge through words on a page. To go on journeys and adventures in the imagination just by peeling back the pages and diving in.

I remember the moment, not long after moving to California in my early 20’s, driving home from work, that I decided on a few goals that I wanted to accomplish in this lifetime. The first was to design for a magazine. I did that five years later, making my way to art director just before my first daughter was born. The other goal was to write a book. The problem was, I didn’t know what to write about. I didn’t have a story to tell, or knowledge to share. My first honest attempt was nearly exactly twelve years ago, as I was home with a brand new newborn I found a little time on my hands and decided to attempt the NaNoWriMo, where one challenges oneself to write a 40k word novel in the 30 days of November. I wonder if I still have that unfinished novel, somewhere, but it was never finished and the idea of writing a book was shelved until a few years ago.

Two years ago my good friend Pascal Baudar asked me why I wasn’t writing a book. I didn’t believe I had the authority to write about anything even though I had completed my MS program a few years prior and had been writing scientific research papers for years. I went with the idea of a mushroom cookbook and put together a nice proposal and submitted it to a publisher. It was nearly accepted, but was turned down at the very last minute. I know now they had just signed another similar book with another forager. The editor felt so strongly about my book that he passed my information along with a recommendation to a literary agent who fell in love with my concept and photography which led to a meeting in San Francisco early last summer. However, after a few more ‘no’s’ and her impending leave of absence, she also passed my information on to another agent that she thought would be a better fit. At this point, I nearly gave up but persisted anyways and sent her my proposal. She came back to me with good news, but the publisher didn’t want a cookbook. They wanted a mushroom guidebook for beginners and requested a new proposal. Within days, I turned around a new proposal and they were thrilled, but wanted a book profiling 25 top mushrooms of North America with 40k words and 50 photos in six months.

The problem was, mushroom season in Southern California was certainly over and was waning on the west coast. Not to mention the onset of a pandemic. Oh, and many mushrooms I had never found yet, particularly Hen of the Woods which is only found on the east coast. Six months to trust nature and my mushroom hunting abilities to show up across the country to find something I never found before. Luckily I have a few fantastic friends who have helped along the way to make this possible.

Five and a half months later, I have submitted all of my work, despite the editor changing the deadline several times. I leave for the east coast next month, one more time, to find the one I am still missing. The hen of the woods. For now, the biggest part of this project is done. I wrote a book called ‘Mushroom Wanderland’ and it will be published by Countryman Press, released next year.

‘What next?’ … everyone asks. It is strange to be working towards something for so long, for a lifetime, for it to go to the last stage of ‘I want to write a book,’ ‘I am writing a book,’ to now ‘I wrote a book.’ And that is it. There is an emptiness, a silence, very much like that of the birth of my daughter exactly twelve years ago, where a thing that was once a part of me, is now separate and vulnerable to face the harshness of the world. I will probably write another book, not sure what about yet, but I know I will continue to wander and wonder about the world through this very human experience.


PREORDER NOW: Mushroom Wanderland: A Forager’s Guide to Finding, Identifying, and Using 25 Wild Fungi by Jess Starwood

The breathtaking beauty of mushrooms from a master forager: how to identify and use them in cooking, home remedies, and spirituality.

Foraging for mushrooms is a meditative and rewarding escape. Even if readers aren’t ready to head out into the woods, this enchanting visual guide is a welcome introduction to 25 easily identifiable species, organized by location and use. Author Jess Starwood has led hundreds of foraging trips, sharing her knowledge of nature with students. This, her first book, is a celebration of fungi—perfect for both beginner and longtime mushroom admirers.

No matter their use, all mushrooms have specific characteristics that are easy to recognize with the right teacher. Under Starwood’s guidance, readers will learn to identify caps, stipes, gills, and pores. They’ll encounter species such as Reishi, Lion’s Mane, Candy Cap, Chanterelle, and more; learn the best harvesting seasons; and enjoy delicious recipes using culinary favorites. But, above all, this guide will have readers growing their connection to nature and dreaming of the wonderful world of fungi.

Acorn + Persimmon Tart

The many tastes of the season here in Southern California come together in this simple yet satisfyingly complex dessert, the Acorn + Persimmon Tart. The most time consuming part is to process the acorns which are abundant this time of year. My preferred method is to cold-leach them, which retains flavor and nutrients, however it can take several days to do this. Processing acorns is an entire post in itself, but can be found repetitiously online from other sources.

For this recipe, I started out with cold-leached acorns from the local mountains that were ground to a fine flour using a high speed blender. Persimmons were once a common tree planted in yards of older neighborhoods that tend to produce copious amounts of fruits. Not everyone is a fan of persimmons so it only takes a little bit of asking around to glean some fruits. Heck, you might even make some new friends in the area.

For quite some time during my many years of fascination with health food, I obsessed over raw dairy-free desserts. The concept that an indulgence can actually be good for you was mind-blowing. Every week I would create pies, cakes, cookies, ice cream, etc from whole, nutritious ingredients for myself and my kids, and whoever I could cajole into trying them. They were always surprised that for one, they were dairy-free, and two, they were actually good for you despite tasting so sinfully delicious.

Persimmons in my house don’t usually get past my snacking habits, but inspired by my new stash of acorn flour, a bag full of persimmons, some pomegranates from the yard, and a pint of honey just harvested a few days before, I was set on actually making a presentable dessert. This recipe is incredibly simple with few ingredients, most which can be sourced locally or foraged. Except cashews. I still have yet to find a suitable replacement for these, and my pine nut stash is nearly gone.

Acorn + Persimmon Tart

Crust Ingredients:
1 cup cold-leached acorn flour
1/2 cup dates, pitted
Pinch of sea salt

Filling Ingredients:
1 cup cashews, soaked in water for 1-2 hours, drained (or sub pine nuts for all locally sourced ingredients)
2T honey
1 persimmon cubed

Garnish
Sliced persimmon
Pomegranate arils
Honey

  • Combine the crust ingredients into a food processor and process until it begins to stick together creating a dough. Add a few teaspoons of water if necessary.
  • Place into a tart pan and press to form a solid crust.
  • Combine the filling ingredients and blend completely until smooth in a high speed blender.
  • Pour the filling into the tart crust and place into the refrigerator for a few hours to set.
  • Slice a persimmon thinly and evenly using a mandolin and arrange on the tart, using the filling to secure the slices.
  • Garnish with pomegranate arils and drizzle with honey.

The Quest for Saguaro Fruit

The quest for Saguaro Fruit… is it the journey that makes it that much sweeter?

Deep into the heat of the Sonoran desert, the hottest days of the year, the giant saguaro cactus offers its deeply hued fruits to the winged folk—the white-winged doves, the woodpeckers and the bats—up to sixty feet above the ground. These green skinned fruits burst open like flowers, revealing their crimson flesh and hundreds of black seeds. This is the third year I have collected the fruits and it is not a casual task. Sometimes I get lucky and there’s a generous saguaro who’s large arm has become too heavy and bends downward, offering its nearly spineless fruit within reach.

At the beginning of my trip, I was able to grab a few fruits on a cactus that was conveniently next to a fence that I climbed on and used an extendable pool net to haphazardly collect them. They were completely unripe and unpalatable (but I still pickled them and they turned out great!).

The following night, on my evening walk, I noticed another cactus who’s fruits were bursting open—their tell-tale sign of ripeness. I had no pool net, ladder nor long stick to reach them so I grabbed a few nearby stones to toss at them hoping to dislodge a few. Apparently the cactus thought I was playing catch and bounced them right back at me. Noted: catching skills need improvement.

I went on my way, feeling a bit embarrassed, but remembering just down the path there was another cactus with the bent-down arm that I collected from last year. The darkness that was creeping in was fitting for the scene that I was not expecting. Within the year since I last visited, the cactus had died. This led me to wonder, was I the last human to eat its fruits? It had been a stately cactus with many arms, indicative of its age… possibly up to 200 years old. Had there been any other hungry wanderers that had enjoyed its fruit in that time? Surely it hadn’t been waiting for me… but that romantic idea had danced through my mind. Wistfully, I turned my gaze to the ground and noticed the remains of one of its arms. All of the flesh had decomposed leaving long thick ‘ribs’ of the cactus behind. It had left me a gift even after its death.

In the past, it was these sticks that were used by native people to collect the fruits. Some were long enough as they were, other times they were tied end to end to reach the tops of the highest cacti. I gratefully chose one stick and returned to the first cactus with the ripe fruit. I was reminded of the story by Shel Silverstein… “The Giving Tree” where the tree gives everything of itself, its fruit, shade, wood, and then it’s stump even after its death, to the boy.

I only took a few fruits. No more than what I needed to share with my family for this only once a year treat. No need for any special preparations with their delicate flavor. This fruit is mildly sweet, reminiscent of watermelon without the water and much less slimy than prickly pear fruit. It is full of tiny crunchy black seeds that can be eaten altogether with the fruit. One of my most favorites.

Is the taste that incredible and worth the effort? Or is it the journey to it that makes it that much sweeter?

Follow my journeys on Instagram @jess.starwood

Tom Kha soup with Chicken of the Woods Mushroom

One of my most favorite soups but with chicken mushrooms in place of real chicken.

1 Tbsp. coconut oil
1/2 onion sliced
2 garlic cloves chopped
a few Thai chiles, halved
3 quarter-inch slices slices galangal or ginger
1 lemongrass stalk pounded with the side of a knife and cut into 2-inch long pieces
2 teaspoons red Thai curry paste
4 cups turkey tail mushroom broth (see note)
4 cups canned coconut cream or coconut milk
6 oz. chicken of the woods mushrooms
8 oz. maitake mushrooms
1-2 Tbsp. coconut sugar
1 1/2 – 2 Tbsp. soy sauce or Bragg’s liquid aminos
2-3 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
2-3 green onions sliced thin
fresh cilantro chopped, for garnish

Note: Make your own wild mushroom broth by simmering turkey tail mushrooms (or any other edible wild mushrooms) for an immune system boost, or store bought mushroom broths are available.

  1. In a medium pot, heat the coconut oil over medium heat.
  2. Add the onion, garlic, chile, galangal or ginger, lemongrass, and red curry paste and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes, or until onions are softened.
  3. Add mushroom broth and bring to a boil. Reduce head and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. In the meantime, boil or steam your wild mushrooms for at least 40 min.
  4. Add in coconut cream or milk and mushrooms. Simmer until mushrooms have absorbed flavors, about 10 min, then add soy sauce, coconut sugar, and lime juice, plus more of each to taste.
  5. Cook 2 more minutes, then ladle into serving bowls and top with sliced green onions and fresh cilantro.

Foraging Baja 2019

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

Traveling affects the spirit in unimaginable ways. But it takes that first step into the unknown to expand the mind and to expand the perception of our world in a way that changes us forever.

This year, I co-lead a week-long foraging and botany adventure into the mountains of southern Baja. With the focus of finding and tasting local wild plants and mushrooms, we explored the different micro-climates of the semi-tropical Cacti and Legume Forests of the cape region and Sierra de Laguna mountains. Plants ranged from familiar variations of species I have found in Southern California (US) and the Sonoran Deserts of Arizona to completely unusual and rare species.

Baja Plant List:

Anise Marigold Tagetes micrantha
Baja Black Sapote Diospyros californica
Baja Bouillon Bush Cordia curassavica
Begonia californica
Cardon Barbon Pachycereus pectin-aboriginum
Cliffbrake “Peyote Fern” Pellaea ternifolia
Copal Bursera empanada & hindsiana
Coral Vine San Miguelito Antigonon leptopus
Cordia curassavica
Croton caboensis
Damiana Turnera diffusa
Desert Honey Persimmon Diospyros intricata
Desert Passionfruit Passiflora arida
Encino Negro Quercus brandegeei
Giant Desert Lavender Hyptis Alba
Heimia salicifolia
Huerivo Populus brandegeei
Melon de CoyoteIbervillea sonorae
Mexican Oregano Lippia graveolens
Palo de Arco Tecoma stans
Palo Blanco Lysiloma candida
Peeromia umbilicata
Pitaya Agria Stenocereus gummosus
Pitaya Dulce Lemaireocereus thurberi
Purple Pitcher Sage Lepichina hastata
Resurrection Plant Doradilla Selaginella lepidophylla
Water hyssop Bacopa monnieri
Water leaf Talinum fruiticosum
Wild Fig Ficus brandegeei & palmeri
Wild Grape Vitus peninsularis
Wild Plum Cyrtocarpa edulis

November 22

On the group’s first day together, we arrived at Sol de Mayo, our base camp for the trip where they had beautiful rustic cabins and a very basic kitchen. Because of the rural location, we didn’t have some of our ususal urban comforts—electricity, paved roads, hot water, and for some of the trip, cell service. We got to enjoy our dinners by candelight every evening. It was a great introduction to the countryside and helped everyone disconnect and unplug (literally). Our first dinner was huilatcoche (corn fungus) and squash blossom tacos from the local market.

November 23

From our cabins, we could hear the waterfall. For our first adventure, we hiked into the wilderness, exploring and identifying the plants we encountered and learned their edible and medicinal uses. After our trek up the river trail, we headed back down for a swim at the waterfall and its refreshing crystal clear water. Our dinner was battered squash blossoms and tacos with wild water leaf, puffball mushroom and purslane.

November 24

After collecting damiana and bouillon bush herbs, we visited a nearby Eco-Community located on a permaculture mango farm. We learned about permaculture, eco-friendly building and sustainable community with the founder Ryshek. He offered us a generous tasting of the abundance of fruits grown on the land. We found a tarantula and several other wild creatures along the way.

November 25

Explored San Dionisio Canyon with guides who took us to some amazing waterfalls and swimming holes with natural slides. Afterwards we went on a hunt for the Baja Black Sapote, also known as the Chocolate Pudding Fruit. After climbing the one tree we found with only a few ripe fruits, we got to enjoy its unique taste. We collected acorns as well and shelled them under candelight to prep for other meals.

November 26

A tropical storm started to settle in, but we headed to the Santa Rita hot springs to warm up and relax. For some of us, it was our first time soaking in a hot spring! Then, we rock-hopped through the canyon, at some points crossing the river waist deep with our packs precariously hovering over the water. We made it to a natural pool that seemed as if it was artistically carved in the rock with a shallow and deep ends, diving, slides and even rock benches to sit in the water. Afterwards, we headed back to base camp to relax. Dennis made a mushroom and seaweed soup using the bouillon bush herb (it smells like Top Ramen!) and the Agaricus mushrooms we found. I made savory acorn cakes, socca style, with lots of toppings.

November 27

The tropical storm settled in and rained all day, causing flooding and washed out roads. Not a problem, we had our robust “El Burro” van to take us out to the Sierra Cacachillias to search for rare desert honey persimmons. We didn’t find many ripe ones, but just enough to bring back to make a syrup for the next day’s acorn pancakes. It was a wild ride through the wet sandy roads that were more like rivers on our trek back to the mountains, dodging the heirloom cattle that liked to sleep in the roads at night.


November 28
With the intense rains, many of the roads were washed out and witnessed several cars stuck in the mud. But, again, “El Burro” got us out to the coast to Cabo Pulmo. Our original destination at the coral reef for snorkeling was closed unfortunately, but we still found a great spot to swim in the warm water of the Sea of Cortez and collect coral on the beach. Afterwards, we headed to the Buena Fortuna gardens for a Mexican-style “thanksgiving” dinner. Most of the foods were gathered from the 11 acre gardens and ended with an epic “pumpkin pie”. We then took a tour through the garden led by Dennis exploring unusual and exotic plants. After the tour, a few of our group partook in hapé.

November 29
Departure back to the united states.


This trip has opened my eyes to a larger and more complex abundant world. Traveling enlivens the soul and challenges our routines and comfort zones. I hope to share many more exciting adventures with you all in the future.

Foraging Baja 2020

If you would like more information when it is available, please send me an email with “Foraging Baja 2020” in the subject line. theforesttable@gmail.com

Desert WILD! Foraging Adventure in the Sonoran Desert

October 9-10, 2021

Explore the edible and medicinal abundance of the Sonoran Desert after the late summer monsoon season. Our journey will cover the entire foraging process, from desert to table. We will explore the surrounding foothills, canyons and flowing creeks to identify the local wild edible and medicinal plants, learn sustainable and ethical harvesting practices, preparation, preservation, cooking and plating techniques. All plant-based, organic meals and supplies included. We’ll hike through the forests of saguaros, gather wild foods and learn how to properly process them. Returning to camp, we’ll collectively cook a foraged dinner over the campfire. Rest under the rural desert moon-less sky for stargazing and sit around the campfire to share stories. Bring an instrument if you play one! The following day we’ll share some more wild-inspired meals and learn about desert medicines to craft our own healing remedies to take back home.

October 9-10th, 2021
Cave Creek, Arizona

Saturday: Wild Foods
Set up camp, orientation and introductions.
6 mile hike in the desert foothills surrounded by saguaro cactus forests, riparian habitat and creek crossings to identify and harvest edible and medicinal plants.
Optional swim in natural pools.
Return to camp, process and prepare foods for collaborative dinner.
Campfire and stories.

Sunday: Medicine
Organic breakfast with wild ingredients.
Medicine of the desert workshop where we will learn different extraction techniques and craft our own medicines from local wild desert plants.
Organic lunch.
Afternoon discussion of our connection with the land, medicine circle and meditation.
Evening walk under the full moon.

Monday: Departure
Local, organic breakfast and closing circle.

Early registration is now open: $595
After July 15th: $675

Payment via Venmo preferred. Once your application is approved, you will receive further instructions to complete your registration.

APPLICATION FOR DESERT WILD:

Lemon Rosemary Chicken of the Woods Mushroom

I have found that this normally “dry” wild mushroom is an excellent candidate for sous vide, rather than the usual saute. Add in your favorite herbs and seasonings and its lends an incredibly tender and juicy texture. I was a little disappointed in the small size of my only find of this mushroom so far this season, but the younger the mushroom, the better.

When cooking these mushrooms, as with all wild mushrooms, be sure to cook them thoroughly. I know from experience. There’s a bit of controversy about whether or not the ones that grow from eucalyptus are edible or not. I think it all has to do with proper preparation. These I harvested were growing from a eucalyptus stump and my kids and I all enjoyed them without a problem… except everyone wanted more.

Here’s my recipe for Lemon Rosemary Chicken of the Woods (of course, you’ll need access to a sous vide machine):

Lemon Rosemary Chicken of the Woods

Ingredients:

A good sized portion of chicken of the woods mushroom, sliced
One sprig of rosemary, leaves removed and chopped coarsely
Two-three sprigs of thyme
2 T Soy sauce (or alternative)
1/2 tsp Smoked paprika
3-4 (or more) cloves of garlic
Juice of one lemon
1/4 c vegetable (or mushroom) stock
2 tbsp Avocado oil

Optional finishing: pinyon pine vinegar or more lemon juice

Combine everything except the mushroom in a mixing bowl. Taste the flavoring and adjust to preference. Add the mushroom and toss in the marinade. Carefully pour everything into a vacuum seal bag and seal tightly, making sure to remove all excess air. Cook sous vide at 160° F for 2-3 hours.

Remove mushroom from the bag and either heat to desired temperature (a few minutes in the oven is nice), and serve, with a finish of either pinyon pine vinegar (gives it a wonderful, delicate mountain aroma) or more lemon juice.

Wild Greens and Pinyon Pine Cream Sauce

I think the first “wild food” recipe that I ever made was a nettle pesto. I would speculate, though, that is probably most folks initiation into wild foods. It is abundant, found nearly everywhere, and quite simple to make without messing it up too bad. Success is fairly inevitable. Now, after many years of diving deeper and deeper into the complexities of flavors in wild plants and mushrooms, I try not to roll my eyes as my social media feeds are flooded with pesto recipes. However, nettle remains one of my favorite greens to use in the kitchen and not to mention medicinal herb.

I won’t go on about its incredible attributes—those can be easily found elsewhere and probably somewhere on an old recipe here for soup. So let’s get on with something slightly different you can do with it (or any other wild or cultivated greens you have on hand).

The first time I created this, I used a wild spinach (also called New Zealand spinach) that grows near coastal regions here in California. I created this sauce to pair with some chia/acorn pasta ravioli with morels for a wild food dinner. I heard from few folks that they were literally licking the plate so as not to miss a single taste of that vibrant green flavor.

Of course, the flavor will have a different profile depending on what greens you use, but this is just a starting point. To be honest, I’m horrible at writing down recipes, much less following them. If I feel inspired, or think of some crazy idea, I’ll find a recipe that sounds similar and then I start substituting and switching things up, tasting along the way. I really have to get better at notes for my book.

Recipe: Wild Greens and Pinyon Pine Cream Sauce

1 lb wild greens, nettle or wild spinach recommended
1/2 c pinyon pine nuts, shelled (or sub commercial pine nuts)
1 yellow onion, diced
1 shallot, diced
2-4 cloves of garlic, diced
1/4-1/2 c mushroom broth (or other broth), plus more to thin
2 tbsp avocado oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt to taste

  1. Blanch your greens: Put a pot of water on to boil while you wash and de-stem your greens. Set aside a large bowl of ice water. If you’re working with nettle, you can use gloves at this point. (As soon as they are cooked, their stinging hairs are no longer active.) Submerge the greens in the boiling water for 1 minute, until they turn bright green. Remove quickly and place in the ice bath to cool.
  2. Heat the avocado oil in a cast iron skillet on medium heat. Add the onion and shallot and saute until just translucent, about 3-5 min. Add the diced garlic and saute for about 1-2 min more, do not allow the garlic to burn. No one likes burnt garlic.
  3. Strain the water from the greens and place them in between a few paper towels and press, removing as much water as possible.
  4. Combine the greens, pine nuts, onions, shallot and garlic into a high speed blender with the broth and lemon juice and blend, adding more broth (or water from cooking the greens), to thin to desired consistency. Add salt to taste, about 1/2-1 tsp.

This could even make a great soup as well, just add more broth or water. I used it recently as a sauce to complement fermented mushrooms in a dish for a wild food tasting:

“Sea of the Land” Fermented lobster mushroom with pickled black mustard seeds and nettle and pinyon cream sauce.

Cactus & Corn Tortillas

Last weekend I hosted the incredibly knowledgeable Enrique Villasenor, local healer in training, who taught all about how to use Opuntia species of cactus (aka prickly pear) for healing a vast array of health conditions. It all goes back to “balance” he says, and this plant helps us do that. Even if we aren’t suffering from a chronic disease (such as Type II diabetes which it helps to reverse), it helps the body stay balanced and maintain health. For the event I offered a tasting of what you can do with the leaf pads also known as nopales.

One of my favorite things to eat is tacos and I have been experimenting lately with making them out of different flours and unusual ingredients. For this event I opted to try adding them to a basic corn tortilla recipe. Because I like things to be colorful, I added a generous handful of spinach for added green color. Way better than any sort of artificial food coloring.

Tortillas de Nopales

  • 4¼ cups masa harina
  • 4-5 cactus pads (nopales)
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 sprigs cilantro
  • 1/2 bunch spinach
  • 1 tablespoon chia
  • salt to taste

Combine together the cactus, cilantro and spinach together in a high speed blender which will create a thick liquid.

In a bowl, add the masa harina and slowly add the cactus mix and the warm water, until the dough is soft and is not sticky.

Once the dough is at its desired consistency, add the chia seeds, and lastly, the salt.

Separate the dough in even, small balls. Refrigerate for 10 minutes to an hour.

Flatten each ball between two sheets of plastic wrap with a tortilla press, or with a wine bottle or roller. Cook each side for 1 to 2 minutes, or until they puff, on medium-high heat, with a lightly greased skillet or comal. Keep in mind, nopal burns a little easier so keep your eyes on the tortillas so they don’t burn!

These go great with grilled or sauteed nopales, salsa, avocado and cashew cream with a bit of lime. Enjoy!