Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Huckleberry Pear Crisp

Once again we've blown through our winter reserves of huckleberries—and it's not even officially winter yet. My daughter is the main culprit, though we're all guilty of huckleberry hounding.

Each year I say we'll spend a weekend camping in the patch in order to pick enough to last us through the year, and each summer we end up chasing some other wild hare. This leaves me as the only picker. Three hounds plus one picker under the same roof? The math doesn't hold up. The last time we picked enough was the year we camped near Mt. Adams and the Indian Heaven Wilderness, possibly the greatest huckleberry patch of them all. I've been meaning to get back there ever since.

This Thanksgiving we had the traditional Pilgrim's Paella, capped off with a Huckleberry Cobbler, one of my all-time favorite ways to enjoy hucks (besides simply wolfing down handfuls fresh off the bush). That was the huckleberry high-water mark. Now, with diminishing stores, we turn to recipes that use the berries in a mix with other fruits, such as this ride in the Way-Back Machine riffing on the first dessert I truly loved as a kid, Apple Crisp. The recipe below is a variation on that old standby, using pears instead of apples and goosing it with a cup of hucks. A shot of brandy or bourbon wouldn't be a bad idea, either, although mine was sober.

The pears came from an ancient supply of canned goods from the year we spent off the grid in Oregon's Rogue River Canyon. We put up more than two dozen quarts of pie cherries that year, and nearly as many jars of pears—Bartlett, Comice, and Bosc. I have no idea which variety was in this quart. I strained out the sweet canning syrup for another use, and added a couple fresh Anjou pears. The cooked huckleberries turned the filling an attractive shade of pink and the lemon zest perfectly accented the berries' tartness. A definite keeper.

Topping

1 cup flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
3 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsp white sugar
1/8 tsp cinnamon
pinch salt
6 tbsp butter
1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans or walnuts

Filling

6 pears, peeled and diced
1 cup huckleberries
1/4 cup white sugar
zest from 1 lemon
2 tbsp flour

1. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. If raw, toast pecans a few minutes in oven or skillet.

2. Stir together filling in a medium-sized bowl, adjusting sugar to taste.

3. Mix together dry topping ingredients in a medium-sized bowl: flour, oats, sugar, cinnamon, salt. Cut in butter until crumbly. Stir in nuts.

4. Pour filling into lightly greased  9-inch ramekin or pie dish. Cover with topping. Place dish on baking sheet in oven and bake 40 or more minutes until golden brown on top, with juices bubbling. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Serves 8.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Frozen Matsutake

I found two frosty packages in the back of the freezer the other day: matsutake buttons, four of them. According to the labels, I had picked them in October, 2010. Two years in the deep freeze!

The matsi were individually wrapped in foil. One pair was sealed in a Ziploc, the other pair vacuum-sealed. With an open bottle of sake in the fridge, I knew immediately the culinary experiment I was about to perform—Matsutake Sukiyaki.

I sort of remember my thinking at the time, two years ago. I had read somewhere that you could freeze firm matsutake buttons, that this was preferable to drying. Maybe someone at Puget Sound Mycological Society had recommended the technique. I had made similar experiments with porcini buttons years earlier. For whatever reason, wrapping the matsi buttons in foil was a required step. It seemed to me the best way to defrost them would be directly in the soup broth. I unwrapped the foil to find, luckily, that I had carefully cleaned the buttons and trimmed the stems before freezing. They looked a little darker but otherwise in good condition. I could smell the signature "autumn aroma" even in their cryogenic state.

And the result? The thawed mushrooms definitely imparted their essence of "red hots and dirty socks" to the soup—not as much as fresh specimens, but more than dried matsutake. The main problem was that the mushrooms were prohibitively chewy. After thawing in the soup, I removed and sliced them; next time I will either slice the thawed matsi razor-thin or cut into bite-sized pieces. As it was, I only ate the smaller slices. The main benefit to the sukiyaki was flavor rather than texture.

My experiments are not over. I still need to test the vacuum-sealed pair of buttons, and next time I'll try not to lose them in the freezer for more than a few months. Overall, I'd say the results are encouraging for matsutake fans who want to experience the mushroom's unique taste year-round.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Forager's Thanksgiving


Here in the Pacific Northwest, we're lucky to have a climate that allows for foraging year-round, even during the dark, wet days of late fall and winter. If you're hoping to include a few wild foods in your Thanksgiving feast, keep reading...

Wild Mushrooms

By late November, those of us in Washington need to think more strategically about our mushroom hunting spots. The bread-and-butter golden chanterelle harvest is mostly done by this time, the surviving specimens oversized, floppy, and waterlogged. Skiers own the mountains now and even many low-elevation habitats should be ruled out because of recurring hard frosts. Head for the coast or the southern Olympic Peninsula and look for microclimates where fungi can persist. Search out those hardier winter species such as yellowfoot chanterelles and hedgehogs. Hint: they prefer moist, mossy forests and plenty of woody decay.

If you're willing to travel, make tracks for southwestern Oregon where kings and matsutake are still available. My favorite this time of year, though, is the black trumpet, which is just starting to fruit and can be found in mixed forests with oak. Sautéed in a little butter, it tastes just like fall.

Shellfish

We're coming into the high time for shellfish. The summer spawn is over and the clams, mussels, oysters, and crabs are putting meat back in their shells, rather than using their fat reserves for reproduction.

Many a Nor'westerner likes to give a regional twist to the Turkey Day dinner, including a shellfish course of soup or stew, or simply a mess of Dungeness crabs on the table to kick off the proceedings. I try to dive for my crabs when I can, though the seafood market is a dry alternative. One year I made a Dungie crab bisque for twenty. It was time-consuming peeling all that crab—I'd recommend shelling out (pardon the pun) for lump crab meat instead—but oh so decadent and delicious. Unfortunately, by the time the labor-intensive bisque was ready, I think many of us were too deep into a Northwest wine tasting to fully appreciate it.

An elegant, tomato-based shellfish stew in the Italian tradition is a great way to charm your guests and add European flair to the American meal. I make one chock full of clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, and squid (note: Seattle's public fishing pier is host to a multi-lingual party of midnight squidders this time of year that is not to be missed). You can find my shellfish stew recipe in Fat of the Land. Or try a simple New England-style Clam Chowder, of which I have a couple recipes, here and here. Steamed littleneck clams can be easily gathered and prepared in minutes. A splash of white with a few sprigs of parsley and couple smashed garlic cloves is all it takes, or you can add a bit more prep time for Clams with Herbed Wine Sauce. Don't forget crusty bread for dipping.

The South Sound and Hood Canal are good options for digging littleneck clams and picking oysters, while razor clam digs on the sandy ocean beaches are a time-honored way to stock the larder. In Oregon, Tillamook and Netarts bays are popular with clam diggers. Check the state Fish & Wildlife web sites for information on beach openings and limits.

Greens

Some of our spring weeds reappear in fall with the cool weather. One of the better bets is wild watercress, which can be gathered in quantity and tastes so much better than its domesticated counterpart. Spice up your green salad with watercress, pair it with wild mushrooms in a stuffing, or make a soup or side dish with it.

Berries

We're lucky to have a dozen varieties of huckleberry in Washington and Oregon. Our late ripening variety is the evergreen huckleberry, Vaccinium ovatum, and it's often available right around Thanksgiving. Of all the huckleberries, it's one of the easiest to pick, with sweet berries that can be pulled off the branches in bunches, so get your fill, though be warned: as with our fall mushrooms, this is not a good evergreen huckleberry year. Should you find some, there's nothing better than a huckleberry pie or cobbler to put an exclamation mark on a wild Thanksgiving meal.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Wild Mushroom and Root Vegetable Gratin

Reconstructing restaurant dishes at home is a time-honored way to improve one's chops in the kitchen. Rather than slavishly following a recipe, the reconstruction relies on gumshoe detective work, a perilous need for improvisation, and a willingness to see the whole thing go up in flames.

Sometimes it works out. One of my best reconstructions to date is this Broiled Halibut with Licorice Fern Beurre Blanc, Truffle Butter & Root Medley.

Other times a restaurant dish can be utterly baffling in its preparation. Lucky for me, the menu at Sitka & Spruce the other night included enough clues to allow for a high probability of reconstruction success. The dish in question was written as "gratin of chanterelles, parsnips, celeriac, chard & salted pork." That's a generous quantity of info. I added mascarpone, since it obviously had cream of some sort, a few herbs and spices, and breadcrumbs, which were also plain to see on top. My other addition, which clearly wasn't in Sitka's preparation, was cauliflower mushrooms, which I used together with chanterelles (look closely at the photo and you can barely make out my car's luggage rack; this specimen was hiding mere yards from the road).

What I didn't have was the method, but a little online sleuthing gave me a sense of how I should proceed. The end result was nearly as good as the original: a nice balance between the savoriness of the pork with the sweetness of the chanterelles and parsnips, and a textural continuum that started with creamy and finished with a pleasing, though not overwhelming, crunch.

Next time I do this dish I won't bother to blanche the root vegetables; they're cut small enough to soften between the initial pan-cooking and the final baking. Also, I'll make sure the breadcrumbs are not so fine for added crunchiness. Overall, this is a definite keeper and a great use for chanterelles, which should be used generously.

1 cup celery root, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup parsnip, cut into rounds and half-rounds
1 loose cup salt pork, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 leek, white part only, diced
1 lb wild mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 cup vegetable stock
1/2 cup mascarpone
1 tbsp butter
1 cup shredded chard
1 tbsp fresh thyme
fresh nutmeg
olive oil for sauté

1. Blanche celery root and parsnip in boiling water for a few minutes, until not quite fork tender. Drain and set aside. Note: this step can be omitted if root vegetables are cut to specification.

2. Meanwhile, sauté salt pork in a lightly oiled pan over medium heat, allowing fat to render and meat to brown until edges are crispy.

3. Add diced leek and cook together until soft.

4. Add wild mushrooms and cook several minutes, until mushrooms release their water and all liquid is cooked off. Remove mixture to a bowl.

5. In same pan, melt butter over medium heat and add blanched root vegetables. Cook until lightly browned, turning a few times with a spatula.

6. Return pork-leek-mushroom mixture to pan. Add vegetable stock and allow to cook down. Next add mascarpone and stir together. Mix in shredded chard. Season with thyme and several gratings of nutmeg. Adjust for salt. Consistency should be creamy, even slightly soupy. Increase stock or mascarpone if necessary.

7. Spoon into greased ramekins, cover with breadcrumbs (preferable homemade), and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes, checking to make sure top doesn't burn.

Makes 4 small ramekins. Serve with good bread and defibrillator.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Wild Watercress Potstickers

I love potstickers so much that—until the other day—I had never cooked them at home. Make sense? They occupied a place in my mind that was beyond the kitchen, or at least my kitchen. They were enshrined, enshrouded, holy.

But the other day I came home with a big bag of wild fall watercress and decided it was time to expand the repertoire.

Watercress is one of those weeds that mocks us for our stupidity. It's incredibly tasty, loaded with nutrients, and available much of the year in many parts of the country. It dares us to act sensible and...eat it. Here in the Pacific Northwest there are viable patches of watercress nearly every month of the year. Some of those patches will grow, flower, die back, and then grow again, all within the same calendar year.

The key is to find watercress upstream of livestock and development. It's a common weed of roadside ditches, but make sure those ditches aren't beside busy highways or visited by the pesticide sprayer.

While hunting mushrooms the other day I stopped at a watercress patch. The patch was so robust that, at 50 miles per hour, you wouldn't believe it was watercress at all. It looked more like planted shrubbery. Filling a grocery bag took about 30 seconds. I nibbled some on the way home. The peppery flavor was intense. If you like arugula, you'll love watercress.

I guess I was craving potstickers, and the watercress seemed like a good flavor to match with either ground pork or tofu. In the end I made two separate fillings to keep everyone at home happy, a meat filling and a veggie filling. The wrappers were easier to make than I had expected, though I wouldn't say I've mastered the technique.

Meat Filling:

1 lb ground pork
2 loose cups watercress, finely chopped
3 green onions, finely chopped
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
white pepper

Mix ingredients in a large bowl and set aside. Makes enough for 24 potstickers.

Vegetarian Filling:

1 14-oz package firm tofu, finely chopped
2 loose cups watercress, finely chopped
3 green onions, finely chopped
1 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
white pepper

Mix ingredients in a large bowl and set aside. Makes enough for 24 potstickers.

Wrappers:

1 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup boiling water

Mix flour and salt into large bowl. Measure out a 1/2 cup of boiling water and add to bowl of dry ingredients. Stir with wooden spoon until cool enough to work with hands. Knead 5 minutes over  a lightly floured work surface until smooth. Divide into two equal balls. Roll each ball into a 12-inch snake. Slice each snake into 1/2-inch sections, about a dozen per snake. With a rolling pin, roll out each section into a round wrapper, about 3 inches in diameter. Makes about 24 wrappers.

To fill and cook potstickers:

1. Use a teaspoon to scoop a heaping amount of filling onto the middle of a wrapper. Fold over and pinch edges. Put aside. Repeat.

2. Add a 1/2 tablespoon of peanut oil to a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Arrange a dozen potstickers in a single layer. Fry a couple minutes uncovered until golden brown on bottom. Drizzle a 1/2 cup of water into the pan and cover. Cook several more minutes, until water is absorbed and cooked off. At this point I like to flip the potstickers to lightly brown the other side before serving.

Makes about 24 potstickers. Serve with a dipping sauce of soy sauce, black vinegar, sesame oil, and hot oil. You can also add chopped scallion and ginger to the sauce.




Saturday, October 27, 2012

Matsutake and Shellfish Soup

I've been getting emails about our lackluster fall mushroom season in the Pacific Northwest. Even NPR did a story on it—and they pretty much got it right. The mushrooms tried to pop right on schedule—and in some cases, such as with lobsters and white chanterelles, they succeeded—but the long dry spell in September burned much of the crop and then that first big storm in mid-October wiped it out.

Many a mushroom hunter was hoping the rain would have the immediate effect of causing a huge—if belated—flush. My hunch is that the mycelia had already formed primordia, and the deadly combo of drought followed by deluge dealt a knockout one-two punch. At this point we should be hoping for winter species like yellowfeet and hedgehogs, though I'm not optimistic.

The other day I picked a spot on the Olympic Peninsula that's usually carpeted with mushrooms this time of year. We salvaged a few matsutake and passed by many more that had clearly suffered heat exhaustion. Yellowfeet were nowhere in evidence, and just a couple hogs had managed to fruit. A half-dozen cauliflower mushrooms saved the day, but even those showed signs of distress with obvious yellowing of the ruffles.

Cauliflower mushroom
Still, a half-pound of #4 matsutake is all it takes to make a good meal, and there's something sweet about using wild main ingredients from two different kingdoms. This is a dish I had once over at Idle Wylde, the home of Foraged and Found Edibles proprietor Jeremy Faber. In typical fashion, he didn't even remember making it when I asked for the recipe. I told him it included manila clams, matsutake, and leeks. "Makes sense," he said, "matsi and shellfish go together." So I tried to reconstruct it from my own hazy memory banks and the result was astonishingly good. At least, that's what Marty said, and I have to agree.

1/2 lb matsutake mushrooms (or more), sliced
1 lb littleneck clams in the shell, scrubbed
1 lb mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
2 leeks, white part only, sliced
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 cup sake
1 cup chicken stock
1 scallion, thinly sliced for garnish

1. Saute sliced leeks in peanut oil in heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, 2 minutes.

2. Add matsutake and cook together another couple minutes, stirring occasionally. Add sake and chicken stock and allow to simmer together a few minutes so the broth absorbs the singular matsi flavor.

3. Raise heat to high, add shellfish, and cover. Remove from heat when the clams and mussels have opened, careful not to overcook. Ladle into bowls and garnish with sliced scallion.

Serves 2 for dinner, or 4 as an appetizer.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Foraging's Golden Rule























It happens every year. Someone eats poisonous mushrooms and winds up in the hospital—or worse. Then I get well-meaning emails from concerned friends and acquaintances.

This fall a Connecticut woman poisoned her whole family. Reports say the mushrooms she picked in her back yard and fed to her husband and two daughters was the notorious Destroying Angel, Amanita bisporigera (pictured at top). If that's true, the family got off lucky. Three of them were released from medical care last week with their own livers. A fourth remained in the hospital, and—lucky for her—was being treated with silibinin, an experimental drug widely used in Europe and only recently available in the U.S.

The toxins in deadly Amanitas such as the Destroying Angel and the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) inhibit cell production in the liver and kidneys. Symptoms often don't occur until several hours after ingestion and include vomiting and severe abdominal pain, followed by liver and kidney failure, hepatic coma, and death. There is no antidote. Patients are typically treated with charcoal solutions. Silibinin, made from an extract of milk thistle, seems to have antihepatotoxic properties—that is, it protects liver and kidney cells from toxins—and looks to be the most promising cure at the moment.

Great new experimental drugs aside, the best cure is to not eat poisonous mushrooms in the first place! Stories like this scare people. But it's still possible to enjoy the many pleasures of mycophagy (mushroom eating) without a trip to the hospital and a long recovery. Simply observe foraging's golden rule: never eat anything that you can't identify without 100 percent certainty.

To learn the skills of mushroom identification, take a class, join a mycological society, go into the field with a trusted mentor. Learn key field characteristics by studying actual mushrooms with mushroom experts—not by looking at pictures in field guides. Respect the limits of your knowledge. Some species are easy to learn. Chanterelles, porcini, and morels are among our tastiest wild mushrooms and relatively easy to identify. Other species require more skill. Go slow and enjoy the process.

The consequences of blithely nibbling your way through the wild are too grave. For another Halloween mushroom scare fest, read this harrowing account of a near-fatal encounter with the Destroying Angel.

Photo at top by Cornell Fungi.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Wild Berry Sorbet

We finally got a light drizzle, and forecasters are calling for actual rain later this weekend. In two decades of living in Seattle I've never seen a fall like this. The mushroom season was basically a non-starter. Fungi began to appear right on schedule despite the dry conditions, especially lobsters and white chanterelles, but without a drop in September and the first third of October, most mushrooms stalled out and withered beneath the duff.

The weather, or lack of it, has been tough on the region's commercial foragers. Normally golden chanterelles and porcini are the focus this time of year. Instead, the pickers have been extending the huckleberry harvest.

My own freezer is filled with bags of huckleberries, too, and blackberries. My daughter can't get enough for smoothies, yogurt parfaits, panna cotta, coffee cake, and other treats. These are the go-to uses for berries in our family, in addition to my own favorite, cobbler. Looking for something new, I turned to Foraged Flavor by Tama Matsuoka Wong for inspiration. Wong is the house forager for New York's Daniel restaurant, part of Daniel Boulud's empire. With help from the restaurant's chef de cuisine, Eddy Leroux, she's given the usual dirt-under-the-fingernails foraging book a more culinary twist. Arranged by season, Foraged Flavor is a catalogue of wild foods (with an East Coast emphasis) and recipes that have passed muster in Manhattan's cutthroat dining scene.

"Although sometimes startling and sharp," Wong writes in the introduction, "a wild taste is often more complex...with a symphony of flavors and notes. Similarly, wild plants look and act more like individuals, as they have not been airbrushed or altered to sit on a supermarket shelf like Hollywood stars." Amen.

Most foraging books are identification guides that dwell on the finding rather than the cooking. Wong's book takes a different approach with its focus on cuisine. True, the book comes with color plates in a DK style and helpful notes on habitat and key characteristics. But it is the scores of recipes, more than eighty in all, that will make this a dog-earred addition to the forager's bookshelf.

The recipes are spare and simple, highlighting the arresting flavors of the foraged ingredient. There are several variations on salads (e.g., Cardamine Cress with Fennel and Orange Vinaigrette), dips (Garlic Mustard Eggplant Dip), and syrups (Pineapple Weed Syrup). Some of the recipes that have caught my eye, earning a bookmark for later: Curried Lamb and Lambsquarters Meatballs, Sweet and Sour Daikon Radish with Crushed Juniper Berries, and Candied Violet Flowers.

Say the authors on their recipe for Wild Berry Popsicles: "The rich and layered blend of berry tastes make this an out-of-the-ordinary treat." If you're lacking in popsicle moulds, make a sorbet instead, as I did with an equal mix of huckleberries and blackberries.

1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups wild mixed berries

1. In medium saucepan, bring to boil 2 cups water, sugar, and vanilla extract. Remove from heat.

2. In a blender, puree the berries and then add the sugar syrup. Blend together until smooth (about 2 minutes). Strain through fine mesh or cheesecloth. Spoon into moulds and freeze until solid, at least 4 hours.

Manhattan may have a highly critical restaurant clientele, but this simple sorbet got the thumb's up from the most exacting berry aficionado I know.


Saturday, October 6, 2012

Elderflower Panna Cotta with Elderberry Syrup

I'm sure I don't have to ask whether you put up quantities of elderflower cordial and elderberry syrup this year...right? I'll confess that I skipped the berries—too much travel away from home this summer to make a jaunt to the far side of the mountains where the blue elderberry grows. Luckily I have a half-pint left over from last year, along with a good amount of the cordial.

The Brits have a fondness for elderflower desserts, in particular Elderflower Panna Cotta. Do a search online and you'll find all these great recipes—in grams and milliliters. Believe me, I feel bad that I'm clueless about the metric system. I was part of that generation that started to switch over in school, for maybe a year, until Reagan was elected and put that communist conspiracy out to pasture.

So for all you New World Elderflower Panna Cotta lovers out there, here's a recipe in good ol' Americanese. Pay attention, it's a toughie.

1 pint heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar*
1/4 oz granulated, unsweetened gelatine**
1/2 cup elderflower cordial
elderberry syrup (optional)

* I used regular granulated sugar. Ideally you would use finer baker's sugar, known in the UK as caster sugar.

** My grocery didn't have sheets of gelatine, so I bought a 1-oz box of four gelatine packets. The first time I made the Panna Cotta I used two packets, totaling a 1/2 oz of gelatine. The general consensus at home was that it was too firm and gelatinous, if that makes sense. The second time I cut the gelatine in half and the result was perfect.

1. Heat the cream in a saucepan until not quite boiling. DO NOT BOIL.

2. Slowly whisk in sugar, making sure it dissolves thoroughly. Next, slowly whisk in the gelatine, making sure that dissolves thoroughly as well. If you're not careful it will clump and ruin the texture of your Panna Cotta.

3. Remove from heat and stir in elderflower cordial. The flavor of elderflower is delicate and easily cooked off if subject to excessive heat. Allow to cool for a few minutes.

4. Pour into ramekins, tea cups, or moulds and refrigerate for four hours or overnight. I lightly greased my ramekins with butter. To remove Panna Cotta, dip the ramekin in a bowl of hot water for a minute or two and run the tip of a sharp knife around the edge. Shake out Panna Cotta.

5. Serve with a spoonful of elderberry syrup drizzled over the top. Contrary to most of the images of Elderflower Panna Cotta you'll see online, served in big round quivering portions, I like to slice it into wedges. Seems more appetizing that way, to me at least. Garnish with a mint leaf or berries.

With less gelatine this Panna Cotta has a smooth, silky, custardy texture. It's so easy to make and so delicious that you'll momentarily forget the stupidity of being stuck with cups and feet.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Hunter's Ed

The hunting memoir is becoming a regular feature of the spring and fall publishing seasons—even as the number of  hunters in the U.S. continues to decline as a percentage of the population.

This counter-intuitive development might be explained by the trendiness in all-things-foodie. Or it might say something about the changing demographic of today's hunters, who are looking for something more than just a how-to guide. Many of these new hunters haven't had the benefit of a mentor—a father or uncle to initiate them into what was once, generations ago, a rite of passage for nearly all American boys—and a growing number of these hunters are urban or female. The hunting memoir helps to fill this void. It's a vicarious ride with a knowledgeable hunting buddy, with waypoints of instruction along the route.

Two new books this season offer such rides, with much more than how-to information. Lily Raff McCaulou's journey from New York professional to Oregon hunter in The Call of the Mild will resonate with many readers, female or male, who are trying to reconnect with the natural world, whether via hunting or other outdoor pursuits. Steven Rinella's Meat Eater is a different sort of book, and while it dispenses all kinds of wisdom for would-be hunters, the pleasure is mostly in the telling, like listening to an old-timer spin yarns by the fire. (That Rinella is still in his thirties makes it all the more surprising.)

For McCaulou, a cross-country move to a new job as a reporter in Bend, Oregon, and a boyfriend (later husband) with a flyrod are the blood sport catalysts. He takes her fishing on Oregon's famed Deschutes River. She then takes it a few steps farther, picking up a firearm and learning how to hunt game birds and, eventually, larger, hoofed quarry. Like Georgia Pellegrini in Girl Hunter, McCaulou faces challenges specific to her gender.

But mainly her decision to hunt is more personal, with an added dose of food politics. She quotes what are now familiar statistics to anyone paying attention: According to the United Nations, 30 percent of the earth's land surface is used to raise meat (including the growing of grains for feed); 18 percent of greenhouse emissions are caused by the meat industry; the average American eats 241 pounds of meat per year. And yet, despite all that meat eating, we are more distanced than ever from the processes that make such a diet possible.
As a lifelong meat eater, I feel a responsibility to see for myself that uncomfortable thing that has always been at the heart of a human diet, since long before animals were domesticated and their upbringing industrialized: death.
It turns out that facing death in its many guises is at the core of McCaulou's memoir, and this stubborn fact of life is explored in some unexpected ways. Not so unexpectedly, the book culminates with a big game hunt, though the patience and detail with which it's recounted will be appreciated by neophyte hunters wondering what this moment of truth might be like.

***

Rinella's childhood, as revealed in Meat Eater, will be envied by many readers. One of three brothers, all close in age, he grew up in rural Michigan and had the run of a landscape that included woods, lakes, and semi-abandoned summer camps. There is a theme of resourcefulness throughout the book that, sadly, will strike many as anachronistic. Much of the pleasure in reading these hunting stories is contained in the process: the detailed descriptions of building a tree sit or breaking down an animal.

Rinella is an amiable narrator, with an easy-going voice and an eye for the telling detail. One of the things I like about his writing is what I call the moment of stunning weirdness—the image, turn of phrase, or even entire scene that takes you utterly by surprise. These moments are part of the enjoyment of reading. They grab you by the scruff of your neck and make you take notice. I'm thinking of a scene in Meat Eater when Rinella recollects his fondness—or maybe fascination is a better word—for muskrats. He describes their denning habits and then mentions that a bunch of them denned in an old float anchored in his family's pond. One of Rinella's tricks, he remembers, was to swim stealthily out to the float and ambush the muskrats, scattering them out into the open water. Then he'd "dive in after them and see how far I could chase them underwater before I had to come up for air."

This is a detail that tells us exactly what sort of kid Rinella was. In a few sentences he captures the mood of a rural childhood, with both the nascent hunter emerging and also the innocent curiosity-bordering-on-cruelty of youth. It's also the way he disarms the reader, so that past delinquencies that he owns up to (illegal trapping, fishing for spawning steelhead over their redds) can be written off as callow mistakes.

One of my favorite chapters is about fishing rather than hunting, and though I disagree with it's inferred conclusion (that catch-and-release fishing is, in a word, stupid), the progression from steelheading in the  Great Lakes to fly-fishing for bonefish during a nomadic, dirtbag month down in the Yucatan is a tour de force of good angling writing (i.e., we're treated to characters and their motivations rather than the mind-numbing repetition of "screaming reels").

What both of these books show is that, no matter what the numbers say about the popularity of hunting in our increasingly indoors-oriented society, words still matter—and the hunting memoir remains a vital part of our literary bookshelf.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Steak and Chanterelle Stroganoff

Golden chanterelles got off to a banging start this summer—and then 48 straight days of rainless weather stopped the flush cold. Here we are in late September and the chanterelle crop is barely limping along. That's why it's important, at least for us mushroom hunters on the West Coast, to know about another species of chanterelle, the white chanterelle.

I've said it before with huckleberries. There's an early huckleberry (the red) and a late huckleberry (the evergreen); there are low-elevation huckleberries (red and evergreen) and high-elevation huckleberries (thin-leaf and oval-leaf). There are 13 species of Vaccinium in Washington alone! The point is, if you want huckleberries—and who doesn't?—it's good to understand the many varieties, with their different habitats and calendars.

So, too, with chanterelles. There are early-fruiting spruce chanterelles and late-fruiting spruce chanterelles; there are spruce chanterelles on the coast associated with Sitka and spruce chanterelles in the mountains with Engelmann; there are Pacific golden chanterelles in the second-growth Douglas-fir, whites in the old-growth Douglas-fir, and mud hens in the oaks. There are others. Know your varieties.

White chanterelles, like lobster mushrooms, started fruiting right on schedule this year despite the lack of precip. Granted, they didn't emerge in droves, but they were in the usual habitats if you knew where to look.

I hunt for white chanterelles in older Douglas-fir forests, and though I have a feeling they're more apt to be found in drier forests (dry being a relative term), I'll also find them in some of the wettest places in Washington, too. Go figure. You have to look harder for whites. They hide under the duff and moss when they're young, and as a result they're usually dirtier than goldens. After a few good rains they can also become quite large and meaty. The white might be my favorite chanterelle for taste and aroma. Don't be put off by the bruising (see photo below); white chanterelles typically bruise when handled but this doesn't affect the taste or texture.



***

I take some heat in my family for making dinners that no one wants to eat. You might think that my kids are getting exposed to all kinds of wonderful foods—and you'd be correct—but more often than not they just want what the other kids their age are eating at home: mac 'n' cheese, tacos, hot dogs, etc. My son is a fiend for Tuna Surprise, which he cooks himself a couple times a week with the usual can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, a can of tuna, a can of button mushrooms, and a box of pasta. I tried wooing him with my smoked salmon version of this classic, and though it earned high marks, he goes back to the tried-and-true. My daughter, on the other hand, has declared herself a vegetarian at age seven, which is an entirely different kettle of fish (and, no, she's not a pescatarian, so she can't eat those fish either).

As my wife Martha reminds me, there's no reason to get uptight about their food proclivities as long as they're eating mostly healthy whole foods from local sources. The last thing you want to do is give a kid a food complex.

With all this in mind, I thought Martha's request for a Stroganoff with chanterelles was brilliant. Here was something the kids would surely love: comfort food with foraged mushrooms, plus locally sourced beef added for the meat eaters. Even the sour cream, from Tillamook, would be local. Great idea!

Yeah, great for the parents. We had a neighbor and her son over to join us. The three parents ended up eating all the Stroganoff while the three kids revolted and ended up chowing down on plain pasta with butter.

6 tbsp butter, divided
1 lb top sirloin, thinly sliced
1/3 cup shallots, chopped
1 lb chanterelles, sliced
1 cup sour cream
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1/2 cup white wine
splash cognac
salt and pepper
tarragon
paprika
fresh parsley, chopped

1. Season beef with salt and pepper, then sauté in 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat in a large saucepan, cooking a minute or two before turning for another minute or two. Be careful not to overcook the beef. Remove to a bowl.

2. Sauté shallots in same pan until translucent, a couple minutes. Remove to same bowl with beef.

3. Add remaining butter to pan and sauté chanterelles several minutes. De-glaze with wine and cognac.

4. Reduce heat to low and add sour cream and mustard. Stir in a pinch of dried tarragon (or a loose tablespoon of chopped fresh). Return beef and shallots to pan and cook together another couple minutes before serving.

5. Serve over egg noodles. Garnish with paprika and parsley.





Monday, September 17, 2012

Oven-roasted Salmon with Herb Risotto and Olive-Tomato Tapenade

Fishing for silvers off Seattle has been good for the last couple weeks, and with the larger ocean-going fish now returning to Puget Sound, it's getting better. I lost a 10-pounder at the boat the other day. Most of the fish are the smaller resident coho, averaging four to five pounds.

Apparently there was some good action for kings earlier in the summer, too—until it got shut down—but I still think of silvers as our bread-and-butter fish. They're aggressive (i.e. susceptible to a fly or lure), they forage close to shore, and their bright red fillets are perfect for a quick grilling or oven-roasting.

Call me a Homer, but catching salmon within city limits is one of the great things about living in Seattle. It's a sweet feeling to get up early before work, or knock off work early, and string up the rod. Then, when you come home with a nice fish, you can say you've been working—you're putting food on the table.

For this dinner, I first scanned the garden: tomatoes and herbs were going crazy. I made a simple herb risotto using mostly marjoram and oregano plus a little thyme, and both cherry and roma tomatoes went into the tapenade. The salmon was oven-roasted and served over the risotto with a dollop of tapenade on top.

Herb Risotto

6 tbsp butter, divided
1 yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 tsp saffron threads
1 cup arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
4 - 5 cups chicken broth
4 tsp fresh mixed herbs, chopped

1. Stir saffron into cup of wine and set aside.
2. Warm chicken stock in a pot.
3. Saute onion and garlic in half the butter over medium heat until translucent.
4. Stir in rice, coating well. Allow to toast for a few minutes.
5. Add wine. Let it bubble up and absorb into rice before stirring.
6. Continue to add a ladleful or two of warm stock until rice is done. It should be both creamy and al dente.
7. Off heat, stir in remaining butter and herbs. Cover.

Olive-Tomato Tapenade

1 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 roma tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded, and chopped
1 tbsp lemon zest
1 tbsp capers
1/4 kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
2 tbsp lemon juice
dash balsamic vinegar, to taste

1. Saute shallot and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until translucent.
2. Add tomatoes and cook until they begin to break down.
3. Add lemon zest, capers, olives, and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper, and add a little balsamic.
4. Reduce to low heat and cook together for a few minutes. Serve warm.




Monday, September 10, 2012

On Weather and Mushrooms

It rained last night. Alas, Seattle didn't break its record for longest stretch without precip—51 days in the summer of 1951—but we came close at 48 days. Let the mushrooms rejoice.

A professional forager I know likes to stake out contrarian positions on just about every aspect of his profession. Rain, or lack thereof, is one of his favorite topics. When it comes to fungi, he says temperature is more important than moisture for most of the edible species.

This is a nuanced argument, so stay with me here. He concedes that moisture is important for volume, but it doesn't affect the timing as much as most recreational mushroom hunters believe. Yes, there are individual species that won't fruit without a timely rain (take a bow, fall mountain porcini), but while many hunters wait for their beloved precipitation, their patches are right on schedule, or at least quality patches in good habitats are on schedule. Marginal patches will always be adversely affected by any number of poor conditions.

The bottom line, he says, is that weather in the Pacific Northwest is more consistent than most people think, despite the usual claims of oddball this-and-that. "We get rain in June and our Septembers are usually nice." It rarely rains in August and November is always wet.

He proved his theory by taking me to a lobster mushroom patch at the end of August, just when Seattlites started getting an inkling that this dry spell was making a run for the record books. Despite the parched conditions, the lobsters looked prosperous—not as abundant as in some years, but large, bug-free, and delicious. (We also picked white chanterelles, which I'll post about another day.)

I wrote about lobster mushrooms in my September column for Seattle Magazine. Every season they rise a little more in my estimation, and my own personal appreciation seems to be in parallel with the larger culinary community because you see them on more and more restaurant menus year after year—and their value in the marketplace continues to grow.

Pan-seared Scallops with Lobster Mushrooms, Lobster Sauce & Indian Spices

To make this harvest season dish with its colors of late summer and early fall, plate a trio of pan-seared scallops over a bed of roasted vegetables and fungi—in this case, cubed butternut squash, sliced leeks, and diced lobster mushrooms—and punch it up with a drizzle of lobster sauce—that is, sauce made from the crustacean. With their hint of the sea, I like pairing lobster mushrooms with seafood.

I made a simple lobster sauce with lobster stock I had in the freezer. As a cup of the stock warmed in a pot, I made a quick roux with two tablespoons of melted butter and two tablespoons of flour, whisking until the roux began to darken to a nice golden color. Then I stirred in the stock until it was saucy. This made enough sauce for two. I roasted the squash, leeks, and mushrooms with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper and a healthy sprinkling of garam masala, baking at 400 degrees until the edges of the leeks and squash browned lightly. A scattering of chopped fresh cilantro completed the dish.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Taste of Place













A place is revealed by its food. One thinks of the great continental culinary revelations of Waverly Root in The Food of Italy and The Food of France, books that introduced many a reader to those cornerstones of Western cuisine and culture. Or the luscious double-shot of photography and ethnography that fuels the modern tour through Southeast Asia that is Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Hot Sour Salty Sweet.

There is so much good food writing with a geographic bent these days, whether straight up cookbook, memoir, or travelogue, that—for those of us with neither the time nor funds to amass the whole library—it's necessary to narrow the field. No surprise, then, that my shelf is weighted down by books with a wild edge. A little cottage industry of titles about foraging and wild foods seems to be emerging at the moment (or reemerging), and even titles with a more catholic sensibility see the sense of giving a nod toward nature's garden, especially if that nod conveys a sense of place.

Two books that I'm reading and cooking from right now come to mind: Jess Thomson's Pike Place Market Recipes, which examines a culture close to home, Seattle's iconic marketplace known for its brass pig and flying fish, and a locale less familiar to me, the upper Midwest of Brett Laidlaw's Trout Caviar: Recipes from a Northern Forager. (Full disclosure: Thomson recruited me as her mushroom sidekick for a walk through the market in her chapter "From the Slopes.")

Pike Place Market abounds with wild foods, from the salmon and shellfish that a tourist expects to find, to the less expected black truffles and stinging nettles harvested from woods just beyond the urban clamor (and sometimes within the city limits itself). Thomson understandably devotes an entire chapter to seafood—the first chapter, in fact—with notable dishes from nearby eateries such as Etta's famed Crab Cakes as well as a Cornmeal-crusted Pan-Fried Razor Clam dish gussied up by another local food company with a growing reputation, Mama Lil's pickled peppers.

How is it that this admittedly touristy marketplace with its many vendors became a synecdoche for Seattle? It's all about the local delicacies. Thomson explains how the theatrics of throwing fish, a Pike Place specialty, evolved into a more serious customer-seller interaction that culminated in 2011 with the market's decision to only sell sustainably caught fish, a move that both necessitates a greater reliance on what's available in the Pacific Northwest and consolidates the city's forward reputation on issues of sustainability.

Thomson's "From the Slopes" chapter begins with a section titled "I'd Tell You, But I'd Have To Kill You." This is where I show up, to take a fall stroll with Thomson through the market, admiring the bounty of Northwest fungi. We find black trumpets, hedgehogs, chanterelles, truffles, and a host of other gourmet edibles from the forests of Washington. Afterward we savor a meal at one of my favorite lunch spots, Lecosho, which Thomson highlights for their Wild Mushroom Tagliatelle, a recipe any home cook worth their Kosher salt can replicate with ease thanks to the author's user-friendly approach.

Thomson includes other categories such as "From the Butcher" and "From the Garden" as well as a chapter that namechecks local microbrews and wines, "From the Cellar." The introduction paints a history of the market—how it was originally built "in response to a rapid rise in produce prices in the early 1900s" and quickly became central to Seattle's sense of itself, how it was nearly lost in the years following Japanese internment during World War Two, and how it rebounded after a citywide vote that saved the market from redevelopment. Throughout is a reverence for ingredients identified with the Pacific Northwest and mouth-watering recipes to match.

***

In his introduction to Trout Caviar, Brett Laidlaw remembers entering local Minnesota woods "through a gap in the barbed-wire fence" of a neighbor to pick wild sumac, cattails, and gingerroot. As he got older and traveled farther afoot, Laidlaw picked blueberries and fished for walleye and northern pike. The titular trout would come later, when he picked up a flyrod. He learned new skills: smoking meat, fermenting vegetables, tapping trees for birch and maple syrup. Some might consider these old-school skills; to me, I'm reminded of the adage about the old becoming new again.

I'm not sure if I've ever been to Minnesota. Maybe once, in my younger years during a spate of cross-country drives, I might have passed through quickly. But no matter. I have a feeling for the place thanks to Laidlaw's evocative portrait and the foods he incorporates into his life, foods that speak to the mixed forests and turtle ponds and lush meadows of the upper Midwest.

Trout Caviar is divided into several sections based on the components of a feast: Starters, Salads, Soups, a variety of Main Courses (meat, fish, poultry), Desserts, and even Condiments. What binds these groupings is a sense of place and an emphasis on the wild, whether that be Lake Trout Chowder, a Ramps and Fiddleheads Tart, or a comfort bonanza such as Chanterelle and Steak Stroganoff. Foraged foods that I can only dream about, such as hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (Grifola frondosa) and wild rice, make well-deserved appearances.

Of course there's a recipe for Trout Caviar, too. Laidlaw does a lot of fishing in the Northern Woods. In his "Trout Caviar Manifesto" he boils down his thinking about local food this way: Our stuff is as good as anyone's stuff, and part of the reason that it's good is that it's ours. Such thinking might strike some readers as provincial and under-doggish, but to me Laidlaw has grabbed hold of one of the tenets of the emerging wild food movement: there are weird and wonderful foods all over America—indeed, all over the world—that are tied inextricably to a specific region, large or small, and entire foodways and cultures have grown up around these ingredients, including indelible variations on language and custom—the things that make us all different and interesting. Think of crawfish on the bayou or ramps in Appalachia or huckleberry camps in Oregon.

"We serve our trout caviar with dark bread or blini, good butter, sour cream or creme fraiche, and all due ceremony," Laidlaw writes. "Maybe some September I'll have such success on the trout stream that this little miracle will become old hat. It hasn't happened yet." And here's to hoping that old hat is never an ingredient in future meals. With a devotion to what's available for the table right out the back door, Laidlaw and Thomson's books give proof that a taste of place is a fulfilling way to live.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Trout Cakes

Family vacation in the Colorado Rockies is officially over and it's time to settle once more into the daily rhythms of end-of-summer. This means taking the kids to school rather than the trout pond.

[Insert sustained grumbling.]

Back to to the vacation part. Each summer we visit family in a rural Rocky Mountain valley. It's an outdoor paradise of hiking, mountain biking, mushroom hunting, and above all, fishing. The Rockies boast some of the most hallowed angling waters on the planet. On the drive home, I pointed out old haunts that my children will hopefully experience as they get older: the Green and the Henry's Fork; the Beaverhead and the Big Hole. We must have crossed the Clark Fork and its tantalizing riffles a couple dozen times on our final leg home on I-90.

Most of our fishing on the nearby rivers and ponds in Colorado involves catch and release. I've had friendly arguments with my pal Hank Shaw over the tenets of c-n-r fishing. He calls it "playing with your food" and wants no part. As a fly fisherman, I've grown up with catch-and-release fishing and take the side so eloquently agued by David Duncan: in a crowded world besieged with hard resource management decisions, catch and release is a way to preserve a time-honored experience (catching a big fish), and in the process create a future environmental steward (that little kid with the huge brown and a goofy grin).

That said, let's be real. Fishing is ultimately a blood sport. Even with effective catch-and-release technique, a few fish will die (statistics suggest fewer than 5 percent, but still). And, hey, trout taste good, too! So we always take a few trout from the pond where we fish to keep it real. My boy has been doing this since the age of two, when he refused to release a beautiful rainbow nabbed on his trusty Scooby Doo rod. My daughter is now racking up her own pantheon of memorable lunkers.

The kids kill and clean their own fish. Riley doesn't even ask for help anymore. He enjoys nothing more than spending a morning at the pond catching trout and then bringing one home for the pan. He wields a sharp fillet knife to open the fish and inspects its stomach to see what the predator has been eating. Then he plops his freshly cleaned trout into a skillet sizzling with melted butter and has lunch finished a few minutes later. As a parent, to watch this process is to see the satisfaction of self-reliance in action.

Lots of grandchildren fish this pond, so we don't take home stringers loaded with trout. Therefore it's important to sometimes make a dish that can stretch the main ingredient. One day Riley brought home an average rainbow of about 13 inches and we decided to see how big a meal we could make of it. I suggested Trout Cakes. Most of my family has feasted on my Crab Cakes recipe at one time or another, and this was no different. It's quick and easy and can be modified to taste. Trout Cakes love a bin of leftover veggies.

1 trout, cleaned
1/2 onion, diced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 egg
1 dollop mayo
1 dollop mustard
1 handful fresh parsley, chopped
breadcrumbs
lemon juice
olive oil
butter
seasoning, such as Old Bay

1. Brush trout all over with olive oil, place on foil in a roasting pan, and broil until barely cooked through. The meat should separate easily from backbone and skin yet still be very tender and moist. Make sure to fetch out all bones. Set meat aside.

2. Saute diced onion and red pepper in butter. Remove to large bowl. Mix together with the trout meat, mayo, mustard, egg, breadcrumbs, parsley, and a squeeze of lemon. Add seasoning and spice to taste.

3. Form into patties or balls or whatever, and fry in butter until cakes are lightly browned on the outside.



Depending on how much filler you add, you can stretch a single pan-sized trout a  long way. We ended up getting three hockey puck-sized cakes out of the first half of the batch before refrigerating it for later. The second half yielded more than a dozen mini cakes that the adults ate as an appetizer that night with a little sriracha sauce dabbed on top.

It's hard to deny the educational elements to all this. As with so much in life, truth in fishing is generally found somewhere in the middle. Catch and release has its place, as does catch and kill.