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ODE TO SPRING - NEWS FROM THE HILLS

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"Springtime is coming, sweet lonesome little bird, your echo in the woodlands I hear." Spring has finally come in its fullness. The songbirds know it; you can hear them singing at daybreak; a melody full of hope and rejoicing. The song dies away later in the morning when they have to go about their daily business of building nests and feeding their young.

The trees too have heard the siren call of spring as tiny leaves begin to pop out on bare twigs, and apple trees flourish with their pink and white blossoms. Redbud trees, with their cloud of purple-pink flowers, are a vision of loveliness as they line the highways. It is worth a drive up Elk River just to view the redbuds in their glory.

The redbud tree is also called a "Judas-tree" because of a legend that says that Judas Iscariot hanged himself on this tree after he had betrayed Jesus. According to the myth, the white blossoms of this tree turned red with shame or blood.

The blossoms are not only showy, but they are also edible. They can be used in a salad, or fried. The bean pods that later develop can be used in stir fry dishes, but they must be young and tender. I fixed some one time with garlic and soy sauce, but they must have been past their prime. They tasted sort of like garlic flavored hay. I aim to try them again, only harvest them very tender.

The morel mushrooms are in their prime. The earlier black ones, and the half-caps are mostly gone, but the larger, tan-colored ones are appearing. We call them "creek merkles" since they often grow along the creek banks. They are meatier and have more substance than the black ones, and are absolutely delicious. They are also big enough to stuff, although to merely sauté them in butter or olive oil with a dash of garlic powder makes a dish fit for a king.

My nephew Doug's wife, Sally, who hails from Nebraska, where the big morels are rife, makes stuffed mushrooms that are out of this world. I prevailed on her for the recipe, and here it is:

STUFFED MORELS
Split morels in half; clean and dry. Soften cream cheese, mix with finely shredded canned shrimp or crab meat, and two or three finely chopped green onions. She uses a "jerky shooter" to fill the halves, or you can use a cookie press. After they are filled, roll in flour, and then in egg wash (egg beaten with a little milk).

Then roll in bread or Panko crumbs and let them rest for fifteen minutes or so. Fry in hot oil until lightly brown. She brought some frozen ones from Nebraska when they moved here in the hills, and they were simply delicious.

There is another mushroom that makes its appearance along with the morels, and that is the pheasant back polypore or Dryad's saddle. These are often found growing on overlapping clusters on stumps or logs, and on dying trees. These are easy to identify, and there are no dangerous look-alikes. Another way to identify them is by smell. They have a distinct aroma similar to cucumber or watermelon rind. They also are one of the few mushrooms which can be eaten raw, in modest quantities. These can add a nice touch to salads. My mushroom book states that "if morels are the lobster of springtime mushrooms, then these pheasant backs are the meat and potatoes."

They must be harvested while they are young and tender, as they harden with age and become unpalatable. If a sharp knife slices easily through the outside edge, they are just right. Actually, the outside edges are what you use, but cut the entire mushroom off the tree as it will fruit again. These young, tender ones can be dried for later use.

Andy brought some good ones in yesterday, and I merely sautéed them slowly. If they are overcooked, they will become tough and chewy. I found a recipe that I want to try while they are in season—it sounds really good.

PHEASANT'S BACK JAMBALAYA
2 tablespoons butter
one cup chopped onion
1/2 cup diced celery
½ cup each, green and red bell peppers, cut in strips
One large can (28 oz.) whole tomatoes, cut up
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup fresh parsley
2 cups Dryad's Saddles (chopped)
2 cups cooked ham, cubed
one teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Dash of Tabasco sauce
1 ½ cups beef broth
1 ½ cups water
1 cup long grain rice, uncooked
Melt butter in large pot or Dutch oven. Add vegetables, garlic, parsley and mushrooms. Cover; cook over medium heat until tender. Add remaining ingredients. Cover and simmer 30 to 40 minutes, until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed to desired consistency.
Serves 2 to 4

Young, tender poke greens are just coming up in the fields. They are my favorite wild green. Matthew found some and called to ask how to prepare them. I told him that I like to parboil them a few minutes, then change water and cook until tender. He said he wanted to put a couple of beef bouillon cubes in the last water, and I suggested that he use a small amount, and then butter them. I neglected to tell him to drain them—he didn't. He brought me a delicious bowl of poke green soup—I think he has concocted a new recipe!

This is a fruitful time of the year, as the woods are beginning to yield their treasures. I sat on the kitchen porch the other day and watched the morning unfold. It was serene and peaceful, and I could see my azalea bush, a cloud of fluffy lavender, bursting into bloom. The cows were munching peacefully on the greening grass, and the sun was just peeping over Pilot Knob. As I rocked and meditated, I thought, "It doesn't get any better than this!" I'm so thankful that God placed me right here in the hills, and given me more happiness than I ever deserved.

Here is a poem by one of our local poets, Mairlis Edwards of St. Albans.

ODE TO SPRING
Spring, spring, beautiful spring, the sight makes my heart sing:
All the beauty God has prepared for our eyes to behold,
The daffodil, pussy willow, forsythia so gold.
First the crocus, hyacinth, the tulips in lovely array,
I want to say "Thank you Lord, for this beautiful day."
The peach blossoms, cherry, the apple and the pear,
But the redbud's beauty none other can compare.
The little frogs sing their continual song,
While the bluebirds build on their nest all day long.
They raise their young; watch, but let them be.
Oh, yes, Lord, thank you for the trees,
They put forth their buds, then the tender green leaves;
You forgot nothing, Lord, such a sight to see.
The grass on the hillside, the valley in the dell.
This scene is too beautiful for any tongue to tell.
As I thank you God, for everything,
Especially do I want to thank you for SPRING!

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Alyce Faye Bragg
About This Author
She writes the "News From the Hills" column. Born and raised in the country, and still lives on the same farm where she was raised. Has a sincere love for nature and the beauty of the hills. Began writing in 1981 & currently has three books published.
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