Saturday, August 31, 2013

Know Your Vacciniums

Fly fishermen like to joke about PhD trout and poindexter anglers crawling the banks spouting Latin. On first blush it may seem pretentious to be holding a trout rod in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other, while reeling off the taxonomic names of various species of Baetis and Pteronarcys. But the truth is, the fly fisherman who has an understanding of entomology has a cast up on the one who doesn't.

And so it is with huckleberries. In the Pacific Northwest there are at least a dozen species of Vaccinium, and it pays to recognize them all. There are early fruiting huckleberries (the red huckleberry, Vaccinium parvifolium) and late fruiting huckleberries (evergreen huckleberry, Vaccinium ovatum); there are tart, bright blue huckleberries that make good jam (Vaccinium ovalifolium) and nearly black huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum) that taste great right off the vine. There's a huckleberry that colonizes wetter habitats (Vaccinium deliciosum) and one that can be found high in the mountains (Vaccinium caespitosum). Read this post for more tips on huckleberrying.

The other day I visited my patch of Vaccinium membranceum. This is the main species picked and sold commercially. It's big, which makes for faster picking, and sweet. It goes by various common names including thin-leaf huckleberry, globe huckleberry, and mountain black. This is a decent year for V. membranaceum and I would encourage my readers in the Greater Pacific Northwest to search it out. Right now! It's common in the mountains of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, western Montana, and British Columbia, with more localized populations south to California and east to the Upper Great Lakes.

We freeze as many huckleberries as we can pick, and eat them year-round. As I say in Fat of the Land, huckleberries are a baker's wet dream. The balance between sweet and tart is ideal for pastries, and they make the best pies, cobblers, crisps, and tarts.

But we're not the only members of Mammalia with a sweet tooth for Vaccinium and its allies. Ursus americanus and Ursus arctos horribilis are fans, too, so be prepared to share!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Merry Pinkmas!

I wrote about the Pink Invasion in the July issue of Seattle Magazine. Truth be told, since that article first appeared I've been too busy fishing for pinks to do much blogging. Fishing...and filleting, brining, and smoking. Repeat. My freezer is rapidly accumulating a two-year supply of smoked salmon.

This is a fishery that hardly existed a generation ago in Puget Sound. As such, in this age of general decline, it feels like a special gift. And it's not too late to get in on the action. Read the article and then check out these tips for smokin' yer own.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Wild Red Raspberry

Each summer we visit family in the Colorado Rockies, where it's tradition to kick off the trip with a walk up to the same overlook, a place we dubbed the "Bear's Lair" more than a decade ago after spooking a bear from its fern-matted day bed nearby.

The route to the Bear's Lair follows an old hunter's jeep track up a ridge through oak scrub and aspen glades, finally topping out on a knoll covered in spruce and lodgepole pine. Sadly, the large pines are all dead now, victims of the pine beetle epidemic that's ravaged Colorado in recent years, and the forest doesn't offer the same respite from the sun that it once did. But the woods are still painted in wildflowers and home to a herd of elk that moves quietly among the hidden meadows and quaking aspens. From there a quick scramble up a dry, dusty slope and over big boulders takes us to the Lair. A single Douglas fir twists out of the rocks and shades the place. We sit up there and admire the view back across the valley. Sometimes we spot golden eagles circling high in the thermals above.

I've hiked to the Bear's Lair countless times in summer and snowshoed up in winter. It's become a ritual to pay our respects here. Yet, on this trip, for the first time, I noticed a nice little patch of wild red raspberries growing from cracks in the rocks right around the base of the Lair, in perfect fruit. How had I missed these before? Could they have just gotten a foothold?

More to the point: Who doesn't love raspberries? Sweet, tart, soft, delicate. Ruby red. I'm more familiar with the blackcap raspberry (Rubus leucodermis), which we find back at home in sunny spots on both sides of the Cascades, often in areas of disturbance such as logging clearcuts. Blackcaps are dark blue or purple and often mistaken for blackberries; the more widely known form, Rubus strigosus (or Rubus idaeus among those who consider Eurpopean and North American red raspberries to be the same species) looks very much like a typical cultivated variety, if a bit smaller. Unlike a lot of domesticated fruits and berries with wild relatives, the taste of the wild raspberry is very similar to the cultivated.

Wild raspberries seem to prefer marginal habitats and tough growing conditions. As a result, it's a rare day when I find enough of them to make a dessert or put up for later. They're trail food—a tasty jolt of energy while hoofing it through the wilderness. And this day was no different. We ate up all the ripe berries we could find, leaving behind plenty that would be ripe for the local bruins in a few days, taking note of this cache for future visits to the Bear's Lair.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Of Grays and Greenies

The first day I visited the burn, in early June, there wasn't a car in sight. The fire had burned right down to the logging road and a trailhead was marked off with police tape. Signs warned of falling trees and other dangers. We could see the morels before getting out of the car.

Over the next week or two a few other pickers trickled in. To the south, a large, well-publicized burn was taking all the pressure—though I knew it couldn't last. By the time this smaller patch was on the radar, I'd dried enough morels for several winters and many holiday gifts. After a few weeks of staying away, I went back the other day. Again, not a car in sight. The conica morels were long gone for the season.

But not the grays. While the morel season is winding down in Washington State (some years, with enough summer rain, you can pick well into fall in the Northwest), the last of the morels are fruiting in limited numbers at the higher elevations. Conditions might be different up in British Columbia.

Just the same, the last act is a good one. Finding clusters of big grays always makes my heart skip a beat. The gray morel (Morchella tomentosa) is the easiest of the many burn morels to identify. In its youth it has a distinctly gray cap that's densely pitted, and unlike other species it also has a dark stem with a nearly rubbery texture. Under a microscope you can see lots of little hairs at the base of the stem, hence its other common name, fuzzy-foot. Grays can be quite large, and mature specimens seem to have two color phases, gray and light yellow, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Commercial pickers sometimes call the big yellow ones blonds, not to be confused with the mountain blond (Morchella frustrata).

The photo at top shows a pod of mature grays, each of them several inches tall. Notice how the stems appear white at this stage, in contrast to the dark stems of younger grays. As these morels age, the stems lose their gray exterior and the ridges on the cap become sharp and brittle. As little bits of the ridges crumble off, the cap takes on a speckled look. Now look at these younger, smaller specimens below.

The shape and coloration is variable. Of the nine in this picture, all but one still have dark outer stems that contrast noticeably with the inner white where they've been cut. The pits on the smallest are elongated and barely open. A few of these, particularly those three on the right, appear to be maturing into the blond form.

Grays often command a slightly higher price in the market place because of their beauty and meatiness, even if their flavor is mild compared to other species.

I also found a few greenies, or pickles, the other day. At first I wasn't sure what species these were, but Jeremy Faber of Foraged and Found Edibles confirmed them as greenies based on these photos.

Notice the multi-layered stem when cut (at right). Sometimes the stem is so thick it appears solid, as seen in the photo at lower left. To my eye, these morels look quite a bit different from the greenies I saw in the Yukon two years ago, which were considerably larger and darker, with noticeably dense pitting like gray morels. Faber suggested that the lack of moisture this season has prevented this variety from attaining its usual size and coloration. They were scattered in the burn mostly as singletons, with perhaps a dozen in all making it into my bucket.

Some mycologists dispute the existence of greenies, considering them just another form of typical burn morel known in the industry as conica, of which there are probably several hard-to-separate species that require microscopic study and DNA analysis for identification. Still, the greenie familiar to commercial pickers has its own distinct appearance and it's always the last to show in the burn, if it shows at all. The species that it seems to come closest to in the recent taxonomic reclassification of morels is Morchella capitata, but I wonder whether it's in fact a species that has yet to be described by science. No doubt the mystery surrounding greenies will be unraveled in coming years as morel classification continues to be a hot topic among mycologists.

So, what about the taste? Unfortunately there wasn't a conica in sight the other day, and the non-burn morels have been done in my habitat since mid-June. That leaves grays and greenies to duke it out. Most western morel enthusiasts rank the non-burn "natural" black morel as the tastiest, with conica next. Mountain blonds, though beautiful, tend to lack strong flavor, and the early season logging morels are generally derided as unsightly. And those late-flushing burn morels?

I put two grays and two greenies head to head in a summer burn morel taste-off. They got simply sautéed side by side in butter, with a sprinkling of salt. The grays, it must be said, had tremendous texture: meaty, chewy, crisp on the outside. The greenies, however, get the nod for taste. I won't bore you by waxing grandiloquent like a wine snob. The bottom line is that I was reminded yet again that morels don't really taste all that much like mushrooms; they taste like something that hasn't been named yet—a mixture of meat and fungus that pleases the palate with its burst of umami. And for this reason, they made an excellent accompaniment to my first beach-caught salmon of the season, in a summer risotto, along with chard and tomatoes from the garden.