Thursday, November 6, 2014

Pining for the Woods

Hard to believe, but I barely got out this fall. Work, kids, the newish book (which, by the way, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award), plus a new, new book to research—all this and more conspired to keep me on the road for much of August, September, and October.

Back around Labor Day, it looked like we might have another stellar fall mushroom season this year, on par with 2013, and I was kicking myself for the overbooked calendar. August rainstorms—never a given in the Northwest despite what many people might think—did their magic, and the porcini started popping in the mountains. But then it dried out and stayed dry for weeks. Evidence was all over the woods of abortive fruitings.

In early October, right before the annual NAMA conference, held near Mount Rainier this year (for non-mushroom geeks, that's the North American Mycological Association), I got to spend a day in the woods with my pal Jonathan Frank, who was in town for the conference. I like to refer to Jonathan as Captain Aquatic Mushroom Man. He's the guy who's been studying the newly discovered underwater mushroom, Psathyrella aquatica, the first of its kind, which was found happily fruiting on the bottom of Oregon's Rogue River.

Jonathan is also doing DNA work on our western U.S. boletes, including the butter boletes and the beautiful brick red-capped Rocky Mountain kings. Sadly, we got nearly skunked in one of my favorite and usually reliable porcini patches (sheesh, was it ever dry through most of September and early October…and then it got really really wet). We did however find more blue chanterelles (Polyozellus multiplex, pictured above left) than I've ever seen, which I happen to think is just a so-so edible, and a beautiful patch of spreader hedgehogs (Hydnum repandum, at right and below), a very delicious species. Once again, these hedgies were among the beargrass, which is a connection that I think bears further study, so to speak.

At home, we ate the hedgehogs for weeks because, you know, they're about the hardiest of all wild edible mushrooms when it comes to just leaving 'em in the fridge. No problemo. We ate hedgehogs in wonderful autumn comfort dishes like pot roast, minestrone, chicken pot pie, and so on. But because I'm boycotting food photography at the moment, I've got nothing to show you. (Seriously, it's so nice to simply eat and not worry about the light conditions or getting a good shot of whatever freakin' mushroom dish you're cooking.)

Later in October I took food writer/photographer Aran Goyoaga on a mushroom hunt, which she wrote about for Condé Nast Traveler (one of her lovely photos graces the top of this post). Again, we found plenty of hedgehogs in a beautiful stand of old-growth hemlock in the mountains, plus good quantities of yellowfoot (Craterellus tubaeformis), a few admirable boletes (formerly Boletus mirabilis, now Boletellus mirabilis), and some bear's head (Hericium abietis). I've noticed that there's tons of Hericium in the woods this year, and even more honey mushrooms. Wonder what that's all about. I  don't bother with the latter, though I'm told they pickle well. The bear's head was aces in a seafood gumbo, pairing very nicely with the Dungeness crab that it mimicked somewhat in its sautéed form and smoked Andouille sausage.

On another one of my few trip into the woods, I guided a couple who had won my services at an auction for Seattle Tilth. We arrived at one of my regular chanterelle patches from the past decade only to find it clearcut. This is a hazard that any serious chanterelle hunter will face at some point in the Pacific Northwest, likely more than once. Those golden chanties are mycorrhizal with young Douglas fir—but the timber companies are even more enamored of doghair Doug fir. And if you live in the State of Washington, well, the powers that be will tell you that the only way to fund the educations of our school children is to whack 'em down on state-owned land. It's crazy stuff like that that sends me running for the woods in the first place, so I hope to do more sanity maintenance in the not-too-distant future.

Photo at top by Aran Goyoaga; fourth photo from top by Jonathan Frank.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Shroom

A new mushroom cookbook has popped up with the chanterelles and boletes this fall. With its up to date, globe-trotting recipes and solid advice, Becky Selengut's Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms is sure to delight foragers and fungally-inclined home cooks from coast to coast.

Becky happens to be a friend of mine, so I can personally vouch for the food herein (I also contributed the book's foreword). When you eat at Becky's place, you marvel at the speed, efficiency, and improvisation that goes so effortlessly into her cooking. Thankfully, she imparts some of those hard-earned kitchen chops here, with guidance on wine pairings, approachable, common sense language ("if you are filthy, take a bath; if your mushrooms are filthy, give them a bath"), and her usual good humor. The headings are a glimpse into Becky's world: For one recipe, she reaches back to a complicated elementary school art project, when her father, who worked as an engineer, taught her the KISS principle—keep it simple stupid. Never was there better advice for grilling porcini!

The book is organized around the many varieties of edible mushrooms one is likely to encounter at a farmers market or in local woods. An introduction lays out the basics on cleaning, putting up for later, and recommended kitchen gear. Subsequent chapters are helpfully titled after the mushrooms themselves. There are chapters on increasingly popular cultivated varieties such as shiitake and king trumpet, but it is with the wild varieties where the book really shines and rightfully takes its place among favorite cookbooks on mushroom cuisine. Wild varieties include some of our most beloved: morels, chanterelles, hedgehogs, porcini, lobster, black trumpet, and matsutake. There is also a chapter on truffles.

Each chapter (and species) begins with a "fact sheet" with information on seasonality, buying tips, preservation, and cooking notes, followed by five recipes ordered from easy to intermediate to advanced. There are 75 recipes in all, of which two-thirds are vegetarian. "I'm a meat eater working on eating less meat," Selengut says; this is smart because mushrooms really are a natural meat substitute, with meaty texture and comforting flavors. This book could be a go-to reference for Meatless Mondays.

The recipes, from soups and snacks to large, composed dishes, are keepers. Traditionalists will find a Beef Bourguignon here to put those grocery store cremini mushrooms to work, but it is the more contemporary, culturally diverse offerings that will inspire today's new breed of urban foragers and kitchen experimenters. Wok-seared Lion's Mane with Bok Choy, Squid, and Roasted Red Chili Paste? Yes, please! And bring me a side of Hedgehog and Cheddar Grits. Black Trumpet and Poblano Chilaquiles with Crema sound good, too. Oh, and wake me up for a midnight snack of Truffle Gougères and champagne.

Of her Acquacotta Soup with Chanterelles, Selengut writes: "While many of the ingredients in this recipe might seem—at first blush—to be gourmet and expensive, if you were a thrifty Italian who knew the woods where you lived, grew some humble vegetables in your garden, had some stale bread lying around, and kept chickens, this soup would cost you hardly anything." So true. Other dog-earred recipes in my copy include a Porcini Salad with Pine Nuts and Lemon Salt; Thai Sweet and Sour Soup with Lobster Mushrooms, Lemongrass, and Shrimp; and a Maitake Tikka Masala.

With gorgeous photos by Clare Barboza, Shroom is a welcome addition to any cook's library, and a necessary resource for fungi fanciers, who should definitely have this new cookbook on their holiday gift-giving lists.

Becky Selengut and I will be teaming up for patch-to-plate slide presentations at Phinney Books in Seattle on October 22 and Slow Food Seattle on November 3.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Nagoonberry

I have a favorite new berry. It's called a nagoonberry. Haven't heard of nagoonberries? Well, you're not alone—and you probably don't spend much time in Alaska, where I happen to be right now.

Here in Cordova, just about everyone knows the nagoonberry. And now that I do, too, I could be persuaded to journey north just to get my hands on these delicious "arctic raspberries," never mind the salmon fishing.

The nagoonberry, Rubus arcticus, is a wine-red relative of blackberries and raspberries that grows in northern climates around the world, from Alaska and Canada to Finland, Scandinavia, and Russia. The name comes from Tlingit Indian "neigóon," meaning little jewels that pop from the ground. The low-lying plant, with its three-lobed, serrated leaves, hugs boggy terrain on both the coast and interior of Alaska. They're not prolific, though I've been told that berry-pickers in Cordova gather good quantities for jam, liqueur, and fruit leather. The flavor belies its geographical distribution with a tropical Hawaiian Punch twist on a typical blackberry.

By late August, the pickings around Cordova are slim, but yesterday there were still enough ripe nagoonberries in the wet, mossy meadows just off the roadside to give me a taste of something totally new. And now I'm hooked. These berries are something special and worth seeking out if you're in the North Country.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Wild Berry Scones

If you live in the Pacific Northwest and haven't picked your fair share of trailing blackberries and red huckleberries yet…best hurry up. They're mostly done at sea level now, and with this heat they're likely ready to close up shop in the Cascade foothills soon.

I wrote about red huckleberry, Vaccinium parvifolium, earlier this year in Seattle Magazine. Tart and pretty, it's the first of our huckleberries to fruit in the Pacific Northwest. The trailing blackberry, Rubus ursinus, deserves ink too. It's smaller and firmer in comparison to non-native relatives such as the ubiquitous Himalayan blackberry, with a more complex taste profile. Unlike other varieties, trailing blackberries don't grow on upright canes; they snake along the ground and over deadfall  (see photo above), hence their common name.

Together, red hucks and trailing blackberries are a pastry chef's dream team. Both species are usually present in the same woods and ripen at roughly the same time (generally throughout July in my habitat), which means you can target both in a single outing.

Apparently it's a poor year for trailing blackberries, at least on a commercial level. Most of the blackberries I put up for winter are non-native varieties, the Himalayan blackberry in particular, because they happen to be plentiful around where I live, but if I wanted to pick a good quantity of the native variety, I'd head over to the Olympic Peninsula and start poking around in old clearcuts. All blackberries thrive in areas of disturbance (e.g., logged or burned forests, along trails and roadsides, in abandoned lots). The patches with more sunlight will produce heavier crops, which is why old clearcuts are a good choice.

* * *

I usually rely on my mother-in-law for scones. She mails them to us every now and again in carefully packed boxes. But the other day, while taking a group on a wild food ID walk in the foothills, I couldn't get the image of berry-laden scones out of my head, so I went back the next day to collect some of the bounty on colorful display, determined to make my own scones.



I wasn't the only forager in the woods. I see bears in this area every year at about this time, within 20 miles of downtown Seattle. A hiker I met on the trail was concerned about the hand-scrawled warning note (at left). I assured him the bears were too busy enjoying berries to worry about his skinny ass, but he didn't seem convinced.

Here's a recipe for scones that I cobbled together from a few online offerings. Since I didn't have buttermilk, I substituted yogurt whisked with a little milk. If you like sweet scones, add more sugar.

2 cups flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
3 heaping tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup wild berries
1/2 cup yogurt
2 tbsp milk
2 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp lemon zest (optional)

1. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Sift dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, sugar, salt) together into a large bowl.

3. Whisk together wet ingredients (yogurt, milk, and 1 egg) in a medium bowl.

4.  Cut cold butter into small pieces and, using fingers, work into dry ingredients until mealy. Stir in berries, optional lemon zest, and wet ingredients until barely mixed, with a little of the dry flour remaining in bottom of bowl.

5. Remove to a floured work surface. Briefly knead dough so it holds together and forms a disk several inches in diameter and about an inch thick. The dough will be wet and you'll be reminded of making mud pies as a kid—don't fret! Cut a dozen or so wedges out of the disk and place on a greased baking pan. You may need to use a pie knife or spatula to transfer wedges from work surface to pan.

6. Whisk second egg and brush egg wash on wedges.

7. Bake until golden brown and cooked through, about 25 minutes. Cool on wire rack.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Berry Hour

It's berry time. I took a group of would-be foragers out to a state forest the other day, and they were amazed by the diversity of berries available for harvest right now. In fact, I had to crack the whip a few times to keep the gang moving, so entranced were they by the sweet bounty available trailside.

Red huckleberries and trailing blackberries (the native blackberry of the Pacific Northwest, Rubus ursinus) are at their peak. Non-native Himalayan blackberries are ripening in sunny spots and will be abundant in a couple weeks. Thimbleberries are past their peak at lower elevations, but you can go higher and find them in good shape. We also found blackcap raspberries, which I don't see as frequently as some of the other species. A number of others that get overlooked by the average berry picker were ripening in forest openings, such as Oregon grape and salal (pictured at top), and will continue to be available deep into summer; though a challenge to the palate right off the vine, with a little processing and some added sugar, they can make excellent preserves, sauces, and leathers.

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, there's a new book that provides in-depth information on just about all the wild berry-producing plants and trees you're likely to find in the region, native and otherwise. T. Abe Lloyd and Fiona Hamersley Chambers' Wild Berries of Washington and Oregon collects into a single volume more than fifty groups of berry-bearing plants, including well known varieties such as blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries, and serviceberries—and lesser-knowns: hawthorns, crowberries, hackberries, and many more.

I've often wondered about the tempting red berries of the mountain-ash, Sorbus spp. The authors begin their entry on the genus, "The bitter-tasting fruits of these trees are high in vitamin C and can be eaten raw, cooked or dried." Apparently, a number of tribes in my area used them to "marinate meat such as marmot or to flavor salmon head soup," and they're also used in jellies, jams, pies, ale, and a bittersweet wine. The final verdict on edibility: Edible, but not great.

Many others, however, get two thumbs up. The text is sprinkled with recipes for making jams, jellies, syrups, cordials, dressings, leathers, pies, cobblers, and muffins, and the authors also offer updated culinary twists for old standbys such as the Native American energy food pemmican, retooled to use huckleberries or serviceberries mixed with beef jerky and nuts.

Flipping through Wild Berries of Washington and Oregon got me so revved up for summer's bounty that I braved the I-90 floating bridge closure yesterday and visited some of my favorite berry patches. Stay tuned for a Wild Berry Scone recipe next week.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Halibut with Porcini and Nettle-Mint Sauce

The king bolete (aka porcino) is one of the few wild mushrooms that can be served raw, in limited quantities. Fresh porcini, both spring and fall, have a strong floral aroma. Make use of this arresting feature by thinly slicing or even shaving the mushroom over foods. Firm #1 buttons are best.

This recipe was inspired by a dish I had earlier this spring at the Willows Inn, where chef Blaine Wetzel  is earning plaudits for good reason. At the Willows I had a course of spring porcini stewed with asparagus and woodruff. My server shaved mounds of fresh porcini over the plate to the point of obscuring everything else underneath. The cooked mushrooms were contrasted by the snappy texture and floral sharpness of the fresh.

For my take, I oven-roasted halibut fillets and plated them with sautéed spring porcini mushrooms and a nettle-mint sauce. The sauce was quick and easy because I already had cubes of nettle pesto in the freezer. To make the sauce I sweated diced shallot in butter, added three cubes of defrosted nettle pesto, and stirred together with a generous splash of chicken stock and a tablespoon of chopped mint from the garden. The sauce was finished with heavy cream.

Once plated, I shaved a nice spring porcini button over the top.

Given the sort of spring mushroom season we're having in the Pacific Northwest (worst in memory), this might be my last dance with the king until fall.



Monday, June 2, 2014

Wild Tempura Udon

Alas, Puget Sound's recreational spot shrimp season came and went without me wetting a pot. I dredged the freezer instead and found a frosty package from last May. And you know what? They were still shrimpalicious.

Spot shrimp (Pandalus platyceros) rank among the great delicacies my region is known for. Year-old crustaceans are not optimum, true, yet these spotties retained the sweetness that is characteristic of the species. Tempura battered and fried, they made an excellent addition to udon.

After learning in April just how easy it is to make a killer udon at home, I've been enjoying this traditional Japanese noodle soup a couple times a week with a variety of foraged greens and mushrooms. This version is my favorite so far. It has three wild ingredients: spot shrimp, oyster mushrooms, and devil's club shoots. (Click here for the basic udon soup recipe.)

I've played with a number of tempura recipes over the years. In general, I prefer to leave tempura to the professionals (and their fry-o-later equipment), but every now and then I get a yen to make it myself. The key is to make sure the batter is wet and runny, which makes for a light and crispy finish. Too thick and the batter will fry up pillowy. This is a basic recipe that can be adapted. For instance, you could add a dash of rice wine or various spices. Experiment with the oil temperature, too. It needs to be hot enough to fry the ingredients rapidly, but not so hot that they aren't cooked through before the exterior browns. Slice ingredients such as sweet potatoes thinly so they cook quickly.

1 cup flour, sifted
1 egg, beaten
1 cup water, ice cold
oil for deep-frying
shrimp and vegetables (e.g., zucchini, sweet potato, onion, mushroom, etc.)

1. Heat oil in a wok or deep saucepan. It's ready when a drop of water sizzles. Adjust heat as you go.

2. Combine flour, beaten egg, and ice water in a large bowl and use chopsticks to mix together. Don't overmix. It's okay to have lumps. And make sure the batter is thin, wet, and runny.

3. Batter and fry in batches, careful not to crowd.

4. Remove to rack or paper towels.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Firtini

I see a three-firtini lunch in my future…

Believe it or not, the new growth of many conifers, even pine trees, is edible. Certain species of fir and spruce are the most sought after for their tender and fragrant tips, and in my woods they're showing right now.

Simply chopped and sautéed in butter with mushrooms or potatoes, fir and spruce tips bring the forest right into your kitchen, with wafting evergreen aromas and the evocation of cool mountain shade. Infusions are another crowd-pleaser. You can use the pungent tips to infuse stock, cream, or alcohol. At the Herbfarm I've enjoyed a champagne cordial infused with a small shot of spruce extract.

For this drink, I first turned to The Wild Table for a quick primer on infusing alcohol with Douglas fir tips. Earlier this year I had the good fortune to be seated next to Connie Green at the Oregon Truffle Fest's big dinner. Connie owns Wine Forest Wild Foods in the Napa Valley. Her cookbook collects decades of experience in the foraging and restaurant communities of Northern California. Connie's instructions for infusing vodka with fir tips appear below.

1 cup Douglas fir tips
1 750 ml bottle of vodka

1. In a blender, combine fir tips with 1/3 bottle of vodka and blend for 2 minutes. Pour into a quart-sized jar. Empty remaining vodka into blender, swirling around to capture fir tip residue and add into same jar. Seal jar, shake, and refrigerate for 1 week.

2. Strain fir-infused vodka, first through a fine mesh strainer, then through a strainer lined with folded cheesecloth, and finally through a coffee filter for maximum clarity. The coffee filter will take a while, but this is how to get the most appealing result.*

3. Keep fir-infused vodka in fridge or freezer.

While the concoction was steeping, I checked in with my friend Andrew who has perfected a number of wild liqueurs and tinctures over the years. He advised me to allow the infused vodka to rest in between steps during the straining process, so that floating particulates can settle on the bottom. "The last step [with the coffee filter] may take several hours," he said. "But the end result is totally clean." You're left with a beautifully translucent, evergreen-tinted final batch. Pour this back into your vodka bottle.

To make a Firtini, add fir-infused vodka to a shaker with ice and a splash of elderflower syrup. Garnish with a tip.

* The photo at top depicts a jar of fir-tip vodka that's only a day into the infusion process and hasn't been strained through a coffee filter (I couldn't wait!), resulting in a more opaque cocktail. You can see the settling of the fir sediment in the jar. When ready to strain, don't disturb this settled layer of sediment.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Morel Tomfoolery

A couple weekends ago I took my kids on our first morel hunt of the season. We rode bikes a ways up a trail before stashing our transportation and striking out on foot. At first it seemed like we might be too early—or worse, that another morel hunter had scooped us. There was some grumbling within the ranks.

And then we stepped over an old rotting log and there they were.

The first morels of the season are sun worshipers. They stray far from dark woods, popping up in warm, exposed spots where many morel hunters would never think to look.

But we were not alone. On our way back we spied a couple covering the same ground we had just been through. When they caught a glimpse of us in the distance, they scuttled into the woods. My kids found this behavior curious. It's not like we didn't know what they were up to—they had a huge woven basket for crying out loud.

Being the rascally imps they are, the kids decided they would try to flush out these furtive mushroom hunters. Pretending to be birdwatchers, they lingered at the spot on the trail where the couple had vanished into the woods. The mushrooms, after all, were on the edges—not in deep, dark thickets. These coy morel hunters would have to come out of hiding at some point if they wanted to find any.

"Look, a yellow warbler!"

We stood there for 15 minutes calling out birds. All the while we could see one of the couple crouched behind a tree. She hid there obstinately and wouldn't move. I continued on the trail, but the kids weren't done with their torments. As I walked off, I saw them skulking behind some bushes, laying in wait. A moment later they came running up excitedly with news that the couple had emerged as soon as I'd left.

Busted!

Another lesson learned on the mushroom trail...



Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sichuan Pickled Fiddleheads with Ground Pork

The fiddlehead window is closing quick. Seems like they were up a week earlier than recent past seasons, and lowland ferns are mostly fronded out by now. I went higher to get my pickling supply, to about 2,000-ft elevation, and filled a 10-pound bag.

Most of these fiddleheads will be pickled either in an Asian refrigerator style that doesn't require processing (and maintains the bright green color) or this way. That is, once I get around to the odious task of cleaning them.

Some will get cooked too. Simply sautéed in butter is a good strategy. I also like my fiddleheads in Eastern preparations.

I've posted a number of Asian fiddlehead recipes over the years, two of my favorites being the above mentioned quick pickles and Sichuan dry-fried. The recipe here combines elements of both. I used Fuchsia Dunlop's pickling recipe and then stir-fried the pickled fiddleheads with a little ground pork, Sichuan peppercorns, and dried chile peppers (see Land of Plenty).

The result is easily my favorite new fiddlehead recipe.

First, you'll need to pickle some fiddleheads (a minimum half-pound) in the Sichuan style.

Sichuan Pickled Vegetables

1 quart-sized jar with lid
2 1/4 cup water
1/4 cup rock or sea salt
4 dried chiles
1/2 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 tsp rice wine
1/2 star anise
1 tbsp brown sugar
1-inch piece of unpeeled ginger
1/3 cinnamon stick
1 pound or more vegetables, such as string beans, slice carrot, daikon radish, etc.

1. Dissolve salt in boiling water and set aside to cool.

2. Add pickling spices to jar and add cooled water. Cover and shake to mix.

3. Fill jar with vegetables (e.g., fiddleheads), making sure brine covers them. Tighten lid and put aside in a cool, dark place for a minimum 24 hours; a week is better. You can continue to replenish the jar with vegetables by adding more salt, sugar, and wine.

Pickled Fiddleheads with Ground Pork

1/2 lb Sichuan pickled fiddleheads (see pickling recipe above)
1/4 lb ground pork
1/2 tsp rice wine
1/2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp peanut oil
3-4 dried chiles, halved and deseeded
1/2 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns

1. Mix pork with rice wine, soy sauce, and salt in a small bowl.

2. Add 1 tbsp oil to wok over high heat until smoking. Add pork and stir-fry until dry and crumbly, a few minutes. Return meat to bowl.

3. Add 1 tbsp oil to wok over medium heat and quickly stir-fry Sichuan peppercorns and chiles until fragrant, careful not to burn, less than a minute. Add pickled fiddleheads and cooked pork into wok and continue stir-frying another couple minutes. Fiddleheads should remain tightly scrolled; serve before they start to unwind in the wok.

Serves 2 with another dish and rice, or 4 with a few additional dishes.

The other day I stir-fried some fresh fiddleheads in a very different Sichuan preparation, one relying on what is known as a fragrant fermented sauce (based on the mixture of sweet bean paste and soy sauce). This sauce is especially good with a simple stir-fry of beef or pork slivers with thinly sliced bell pepper, a popular dish all over Sichuan Province.

For my improvised version (see above), I stir-fried pressed seasoned tofu cut into cubes along with the fiddleheads, thin-sliced rounds of carrot, and flowering chives cut into 3-inch sections. It was delicious, but now I understand why the fragrant fermented sauce is most frequently encountered with slivers of meat and vegetables. Because of the large and varying shapes of my ingredients, rather than bathed in a comforting brown gravy, they were spotted with oily blots and most of the sauce drained to the bottom of the dish in a dark slick.

At least I have plenty of fiddleheads on hand to continue my experiments with this fleeting taste of spring.