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.


Monday, April 21, 2014

Oyster Mushroom Udon

Oyster mushrooms are popping left and right in my habitat. I found little ones just emerging in the Cascade foothills a few weeks ago and a mature cluster soon after that closer to sea level in Seattle. Since then it's been an oyster fest.

In the Pacific Northwest, look for oyster mushrooms in riparian areas on dead hardwoods, notably alder and cottonwood (the host tree may be different elsewhere). Downed trees are a good bet, but oysters will also grow on standing trees, sometimes high enough off the ground to require a fireman's ladder. What? You don't have one of those? Best look on fallen logs then.


I find most of my oysters while taking low-elevation hikes in spring. Keep your eyes peeled year-round, though, because the fruiting window for oysters is wider than most other species. I'll find perfect specimens in the heat of summer and late in the fall. And remember those spots; they can reappear same time next year for several years running.

Udon is an ideal vehicle for wild mushrooms, especially oysters. The dashi broth, with its main ingredients of kombu (dried kelp) and katsuobushi (bonito flakes), might be the most famous example of umami in action. Now add some sautéed oyster mushrooms to the broth and you're unlocking doors to very deep taste pleasures.

I've said it before, but let's say it together: fish and fungi go together. 

4 cups dashi *
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp mirin
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
12 oz udon noodles
1 green onion, thinly sliced
1 handful oyster mushrooms, sautéed
cooking oil
fish cake (optional)
Shichimi tōgarashi (optional)

1. In a pot combine dashi broth*, soy, mirin, sugar, and salt. Bring to boil and lower heat.

2. Cook udon noodles separately according to instructions, drain, and rinse with cold water. I use frozen udon that comes in individual serving sizes, with several servings to a package.

3. Saute oyster mushrooms in a little oil (I used a mix of canola and sesame).

4. Ladle udon and broth into bowls. Garnish with sautéed oyster mushrooms, green onion, and optional toppings, such as fish cake. Season with a sprinkling of Shichimi tōgarashi if you like.

Serves 2

* Dashi Broth

Find dashi ingredients at your local Asian grocer. You can use dashi packets for convenience, but avoid the powders. Or make your own broth with instructions below:

4 1/2 cups water
20 grams kombu (dried kelp)
2 loose cups (about 25 grams) katsuobushi (bonito flakes)

1. Soak kombu in cold water for minimum 15 minutes.

2. After soaking, heat water until nearly boiling. Turn off heat and remove kombu. Stir in katsuobushi and steep for 10 minutes.

3. Pour broth through a fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth or paper towel. Save kombu and katsuobushi to make a second dashi broth, known as niban-dashi, which is especially useful for miso soup.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Halibut with Nettle Sauce, Peas & Miner's Lettuce

I love this time of year. The woods are greening up, robins wake me before dawn, and wild foods are everywhere for the harvesting. Last week I found a clutch of fresh young oyster mushrooms sprouting on an alder; the other day I found another bunch in full fruition that was ready for picking. Fiddleheads are up, miner's lettuce is carpeting the ground, and stinging nettles are everywhere.

The miner's lettuce I used for this recipe is growing in a nice urban patch not far from my Seattle home. This is Claytonia perfoliata, not to be confused with the more common variety in Puget Sound, Siberian miner's lettuce, Claytonia sibirica. A few leaves scattered on the plate lend a sharp green note, while spring peas add texture. I like to use fresh shelling peas if possible, but frozen baby peas will do in a pinch. The sauce is quick and easy if you happen to have stinging nettle pesto on hand; I always have some frozen at the ready.

Stinging Nettle Sauce

2 cubes frozen stinging nettle pesto, defrosted
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp diced shallot
1/2 cup heavy cream

1. Saute shallot in butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat.

2. Stir in stinging nettle pesto.

3. Lower heat and whisk in cream. Thicken to desired consistency, adding more cream if necessary.

For the final dish, ladle stinging nettle sauce and cooked peas into a shallow bowl. Plate pan-fried halibut fillet (see my friend Hank Shaw's tutorial for pan-searing fish) over sauce and garnish with miner's lettuce leaves. This recipe will make enough sauce for 2.

If you've put up quantities of stinging nettles and have some nettle pesto in the freezer, this is a fast restaurant-style meal. The pesto is also ideal for serving kids a quick and healthy pasta too.