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.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Razor Clam Ceviche

The second annual Razor Clam Hootenanny, in association with the Bainbridge Island Parks & Rec outdoor program, was a huge success. Twenty eager students gathered last weekend at a sprawling house on Mockrocks Beach to dig clams and feast on the bounty. Because of the spring tide change, we were able to bookend an evening dig on Saturday with a Sunday morning dig for maximum limit action. Many of us nabbed clams on Friday evening as well. A three-dig limit of 45 mossbacks makes for a full bag o' clams!

***UPDATE*** Here's some video of the action from the Kitsap Sun.

The digging on Saturday evening was a little more challenging than either Friday evening or Sunday morning. Heavy surf meant the clams weren't showing like usual, and regular rogue waves had clammers scrambling for high ground. Still, we got our clams, and some of us learned that it's not always like shooting tuna in a can. I welcome these tough conditions because they force the clammer to hone her abilities and develop a sharp eye for even the most cryptic of shows.

Saturday night's feast was epic, with two varieties of New England Clam Chowder (one, my grandmother's recipe, with bacon, thyme, and a thin milky broth; the other thick and creamy with celery); a ceviche with razors, cod, and shrimp; panko-fried razors; and a hearty Pasta alle Vongole. We had the kind folks from Treveri Cellars on hand pouring their excellent bubbly and John Adams of Sound Fresh Clams & Oysters was shuckin' and jivin' as he produced platter after platter of Skookum Point Olys, Kumamotos, and Pacific oysters.

It was a boisterous, fun-loving crowd, and the pre-dawn wake-up call for one more dig on Sunday morning was not without its difficulties.

***

While in New York City recently I had a good meal at a new place in Soho called Charlie Bird. One of the standouts was a razor clam ceviche. The Atlantic razor clam, Ensis directus, is very different in appearance from our beefy West Coast variety, Siliqua patula, and more deserving of the name. They're smaller, and quite long and thin—like the straight razor of old. The ceviche came prepared on several clam shells. It was unmixed, with each ingredient—pickled peppers, onion, and so on—in colorful little piles. You were meant to slurp it all together in one bite like an oyster.

Such a presentation is difficult with our big local razors (see top photo), since it's more than a mouthful, but there's no reason why we can't use the shell as a serving dish, or even mix up the ingredients at table right in the shell.

I don't see West Coast razors as ceviche often, whereas it seems to be all the rage right now on the East Coast. Maybe this is because of the presence of domoic acid, a naturally occurring marine toxin in the Pacific (and the inspiration for Hitchcock's The Birds) that can cause shellfish amnesiac poisoning and even death in high doses. The thing is, this toxin can't be cooked out of razor clams, so there's no difference between fried razors and ceviche with regard to domoic acid. Thankfully, state fish & wildlife departments carefully monitor the health of our shellfish.

This recipe is Japan Goes South of the Border. I use only the clam siphons as I prefer to save my diggers (the razor clam's tender foot) for fried clams; besides, the siphon has a snappiness that's perfect for ceviche. The amounts below are estimates; depends on the size of your clams and vegetables, and besides, with a little common sense it shouldn't be too hard to figure out the right proportions. You can easily halve it for a smaller batch.

1 dozen razor clam siphons, cleaned and diced
2-3 cloves garlic, diced
1 small red pepper, diced
2-3 jalapeño peppers, diced
1/2 small red onion, diced
large handful cilantro, chopped
2 limes
aji-mirin
rice vinegar
tortillas, warmed
avocado, sliced
salt and pepper

1. Squeeze limes and mix juice with diced razor clams and garlic in a small non-reactive bowl. Season with salt and pepper plus a good splash of aji-mirin to taste and set aside. A general rule of thumb for ceviche is 1/2 cup citrus juice per pound of fish.

2. Cover diced red onion with rice vinegar and set aside. Chop together jalapeño pepper and cilantro if presenting ceviche unmixed.

3. Refrigerate at least an hour, preferably several hours.

4. Serve, mixed or unmixed, in razor clam shells or a small bowl with warm tortillas and avocado. Serves 4.

I have to say, this was easily one of the best ceviches I've ever had. Razor clams have a pleasing al dente texture. Steeped in the acidic lime juice, their flavor mellows, and aji-mirin adds a perfect finish. I'll be making razor clam ceviche after every dig from now on.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mushroom Fever

Some of you in warmer climes are already out there, scouring the woods for the favorite fungi of spring. Morel fever is back, exacting its toll once again. No doubt legions of mushroom hunters are walking around right now at this very moment with stiff necks and eyeballs ready to pop out of their heads. But for the rest of us, we can only wait in anticipation for such symptoms.

Or settle back into the armchair for a vicarious thrill.

I've been traipsing through Larry Millman's new collection of fungal vignettes, Giant Polypores & Stoned Reindeer, to keep the fever at bay. It's the sort of off-season reading we all need on occasion: a reminder that somewhere, someone is enjoying our favorite pursuit, and soon—soon!—we will be that someone.

Millman brings a visceral appreciation and a traveler's erudition to the mushroom hunt. He forages among the headhunters of Borneo; takes a trip to northern Siberia in search of Santa's favorite shroom; and journeys to the opposite pole in his imagination, where the mushrooms of the mind take on epic proportions. One of his well known articles, "Notes on the Ingestion of Amanita muscaria," is included here, with the memorable line: "Larry is drinking a beer, and he says he can relate to the bottle, that the bottle can relate to him, and that the two of them are actually enjoying each other's company."

In "The Thrill of the Hunt," Millman diagnoses the fever as much larger than a quest for mere edibles, illustrating that it may not even require a walk in the woods. His beat-up Chevy Nova's back seat carries a variety of mold and rust passengers. A friend's brassiere is filled with inky caps. Should you find an owl pellet, he advises, "look at it closely: there might be an Onygena species growing on it." The essay concludes with a visit to a touristy spot in Death Valley, California, where, against the odds, he stumbles upon "a group of stalked puffballs lifting their heads proudly to the bright desert sky."

In other words, we are surrounded by the kingdom of fungi. Open your eyes—and your mind—and you might cure that fungal fever in the most unlikely of places. Millman's new book is an entertaining and informative panacea for all that ails us mushroom hunters.

For those of you in the Seattle area, Larry Millman will be speaking at the Puget Sound Mycological Society on May 13, 7:30 p.m.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Better Life Thru Fungi

Last night I had dinner at a very cool space in Seattle called Art for Food, the creation of Maxime Bilet. Bilet is the indefatigable chef, artist, and co-author of Modernist Cuisine (with Nathan Myhrvold), the massive, multi-volume paean to innovative kitchen alchemy. Art for Food is his new 5,600-square-foot storefront on Western Avenue combining test kitchen, art gallery, performance space, retail shop, and a generally groovy hangout spot. Clearly Bilet has a lot of ideas about food and art and education, and his demeanor is laid back and approachable.

Back to the meal. On this night, Bilet was teaming up with New York (by way of India) chef Jehangir Mehta of Graffiti and Mehtaphor restaurants. Their theme: The Magic of Mycology. So you see why I was intrigued.

Bilet and Mehta both talked about their commitment to food policy issues and child nutrition education. When Mehta introduced himself, he said that one of his goals as a restaurateur was to not waste anything, whether making stocks from peelings or finding creative uses for leftovers, explaining that in India this is standard practice. I find it sad that here in the U.S. we're still trying to grasp this concept. The idea for the mushroom dinner was to showcase how fungi can be both artfully incorporated into a meal and also used as a meat substitute, or at least partial substitute.

One of the courses was a little hamburger slider that was 30 percent fungi. Like all the food, it was delicious. There was a phở appetizer that relied on a savory mushroom broth rather than the typical beef broth. Another dish paired what some might consider a miserly portion of sea scallop singleton with king oyster mushroom medallions; the cultivated fungi bulked up the dish and perfectly accented the wild seafood. A butter-smooth poached Chinook salmon was bathed in enoki butter, peavines, and green garbanzo beans, with tiny pickled mushrooms adding a burst of earthy flavor.

I happened to be seated next to my friend John Sundstrom of Lark restaurant, one of Seattle's early fungal adopters and an all-around fan of wild foods, and we both agreed the use of a variety of wild and cultivated mushrooms added depth and complexity to the meal while also demonstrating the possibilities for fungi to take the pressure off less sustainable foods.

Bilet and Mehta strike me as intensely curious by temperament. Let's hope their curiosity continues to lead them in creative new directions to bring fungi to the people.

Friday, February 28, 2014

New York Area Slideshows

For all my East Coast readers, I'm bringing The Mushroom Hunters back to the New York area in the first week of March. I'll be giving slide presentations at three mycological societies in the Tri-state area: the New Jersey Mycological Association in Basking Ridge, New Jersey; the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association in Purchase, New York; and the New York Mycological Society in Manhattan.

If you're a member of any of these organizations, I hope to see you there. If not, maybe this a good opportunity to think about joining one and delving more deeply into the kingdom of fungi. Becoming a member of a mycological society is the single best way to learn about edible mushrooms.

I'll be showing slides and telling stories about the hidden economy of wild mushroom harvesting, from patch to plate—the pickers, buyers, chefs, and others who make up this little known wild food chain, with its echoes of the Gold Rush and free-wheeling frontier-style capitalism.

Here's more information on my upcoming slide talks:

March 2, 1:30 p.m. New Jersey Mycological Association.
Somerset County Environmental Education Center on Lord Stirling Road in Basking Ridge, NJ.

March 4, 7:30 p.m. Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association.
Friends Purchase Meeting House, Purchase, NY.

March 5, 6:30 p.m. New York Mycological Society. New York Horticultural Society, 148 West 37th, 13th floor, Manhattan.


Monday, February 24, 2014

Scallop and Wild Mushroom Marsala

You might have heard that California has declared a drought disaster. To be sure, it's been a tough mushroom season for my friends on the North Coast and up into southwestern Oregon. That's where most of the circuit pickers gather every winter to harvest the big three: black trumpets, hedgehogs, and yellowfeet. It's just about the only place in North America at this time of year with commercial quantities of mushrooms.

But not this year. Dry conditions have both commercial and recreational pickers going stir-crazy, contributing to an uptick in the recent phenomenon of "foraging wars" stories in the press as forest users compete for a pittance of fungi. The situation is exasperated in the Golden State, where land managers have seen fit to close large swaths of public land to foraging of any kind, recreational included.

Hopefully the recent rainstorms will mean a late winter flush, easing the fungal pain of Californians, if it's not too late already. Luckily I have some packages of yellowfeet and black trumpets in the freezer.

The black trumpet has always been one of my favorites of the edible fungi; it's only in recent years that I've come around to appreciating the yellowfoot for its own merits and not just as a poor cousin to the trumpet. Yellowfeet, in particular, work well with this dish. They complement the sweetness of the Marsala wine as well as the scallops, and they give body to the sauce. The cheese adds some oomph, and helps thicken the sauce, though you can get away without it. If you have the time, make your own pasta, or buy the fresh stuff.

9 oz fettuccine
1/2 lb scallops (or more, to taste)*
1/2 lb wild mushroom, chopped
1/4 cup diced shallot
3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup Marsala wine
1 cup beef stock
1 cup heavy cream (or less)
1/2 cup grated parmesan (optional)
chopped parsley for garnish
salt and pepper

* I used a half-pound of small bay scallops plus a few large sea scallops.

1. Boil water for pasta.

2. Pat scallops dry and season with salt and pepper. Pan-sear in 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat. Remove to bowl.

3. Saute shallots in remaining 2 tablespoons butter until soft. Add mushrooms and cook together a few minutes, cooking off liquid.

4. De-glaze with 1/2 cup Marsala. Cook until Marsala is nearly evaporated. Add beef stock and reduce by half. Lower heat to medium and slowly stir in heavy cream to taste.

5. While sauce is reducing, cook pasta according to instructions.

6. Stir in optional parmesan cheese and return scallops to sauce. Adjust seasonings.

7. Spoon sauce over pasta and garnish with fresh parsley.

Serves 2


Monday, February 10, 2014

Oregon Truffle Festival #9

I've already blocked out the dates on my 2015 calendar. The last weekend in January is truffle time, which means the first few weeks of the new year are a time of belt-tightening.

I'm talking about the annual Oregon Truffle Festival, which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary next year. I hear there are big plans afoot for 2015, so in order to be ready, I might need to join my parents on January 1 when they "put on the hair shirt." Putting on the hair shirt entails cutting out all alcoholic beverages and rich foods for three weeks. They don't last the full month because, according to them, their social schedule begins to heat up again in the last week of January. As does mine.

I look forward to the Oregon Truffle Festival every year. I've made friends who I know I'll see that weekend, and only that weekend. They come from all over the country and abroad. Those of you who have read The Mushroom Hunters know that an entire chapter takes place at the festival. My editor would have been happy to see a whole book from there; he needs to get on a plane to Oregon.

This year's lineup was pretty amazing. Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, authors of the James Beard award-winning books The Flavor Bible and What To Drink with What You Eat, were guest dignitaries (not to mention charming tablemates), and they helmed a tasting—along with Lee Medoff of Bull Run Distilling, beer guru Christian DeBenedetti, and wine writer Cole Danehower—that pushed the usual boundaries: three flights—wine, beer, and spirits—paired with truffled bites. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well an Oregon Vesper Cocktail (Medoyeff vodka, Aria gin) paired with a White Truffle and Duck Liver Mousseline. Whodathunkit?

The first course of Saturday night's Grand Truffle Dinner (pictured above), by Aaron Barnett of St. Jack in Portland, also involved the apparently now hip spirit pairing. Oregon White Truffle Cured Beef Tenderloin with Celery, Oregon Black Truffle, and Oyster Emulsion was nicely matched with a Celery Gimlet devised by St. Jack's John Salas. I'm not a big cocktail drinker, but these pairings proved fresh and tasty.

The Grand Truffle Dinner was over the top as always, with everyone donning their finest attire (ahem, Mr. Winkler at right, with his turkey-tail tie). Pictured at the top of this post is the second course, a collaboration between Justin Wills of Restaurant Beck in Depoe Bay on the Oregon Coast and Gregory Gourdet of Departure in Portland, receiving its finishing touches: Oregon Black Truffle Chirashi with Dungeness Crab, Kampachi, Cured Scallop, Yuzu, Takawan, and Oregon Black Truffle Tamago (it helps to have a smart phone at table just to look up such ingredients!). Another unusual hit was the Chawanmushi of Foie Gras with Oregon White Truffles, served up by Hero Sone and Lisa Doumani of Terra in Napa Valley.

Thankfully I was going into this six-course feast with an appetite. Earlier that day I saw the beginnings of a new Périgord truffle orchard at Domaine Meriwether. (Just add water and wait 10 years!) Planted by New World Truffieres, the small plot is something of an experimental orchard, with several varieties of host tree that will be grown organically (no weed killers!) and subjected to new ideas in this otherwise very old business. Later at lunch, the winery served Beef Tartare with Black Truffle Mayonnaise, Micro Greens & Crostini (pictured above left), another of my favorites of the weekend, and paired with their excellent 2001 Brut Rosé. After that we worked off lunch with a walk in the woods. For those who wanted to take home some truffles, this was a good year. Everyone got a chance to forage their own with the help of Umami Truffle Dogs.

Now it's time to put the hair shirt on.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Super Bowl Chili

On days like today, it pays to have a deep bench. I dropped back and went long for…dried pulverized chanterelles and frozen porcini.

First, I had to make a morning run to the market for some last minute provisions. The place was a mob scene at 9 a.m. Even little old ladies were decked out in Seahawks jerseys, pushing carts full of beer. This town is pumped up. The cashier had a big cutout picture of Richard Sherman on a stick that he was waving around when the line got disorderly.

But this is still Seattle, and my job today is to bring a vegetarian dish to the neighborhood Super Bowl party. Everyone loves chili. Mine will be a little different from the norm.

First, the chanterelles. If you dried your excess last fall and buzzed in the food processor like I did, then you have a very nice stash of magic mushroom powder that adds a layer of depth to soups, stews, gravies, and rubs. It's a little sweet yet still earthy. I think of this chanterelle powder as my special teams outfit.

Next, the porcini. I'm guessing the one-pound bag I pulled out of the freezer was about two pounds fresh. Back in the fall, during an epic king bolete pop, I chopped up pounds and pounds of the stuff, sautéed in butter, and vacuum-sealed in single meal sizes. Today the porcini is my meat substitute. Think of it as that now-legendary decision against the 'Niners to scratch the field-goal attempt and go for seven.

Here's the play-by-play:

2 cups dried black beans
2 medium yellow onions, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 15 oz can pinto beans
1 15 oz can red kidney beans
1 28 oz can diced tomato
2 heaping tbsp chanterelle dust, reconstituted in 2 cups warm water
2+ cups prepared porcini *
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, thinly sliced
olive oil
4 tsp chili powder
4 tsp cumin
2 tsp paprika
cayenne pepper to taste
oregano to taste
salt

* As noted above, the porcini should be fresh or frozen, about 2 cups cooked.

1. Rinse black beans, cover with water in a heavy pot, and bring to boil. Reduce heat, add half the onions and garlic plus a bay leaf and simmer until soft, about an hour. As the water reduces, stir in chanterelle stock.

2. Add pinto beans, kidney beans, and diced tomato to black bean mixture. Continue to simmer.

3. Saute remaining onion and garlic in a couple tablespoons of olive oil until soft. Add porcini and cook together a few minutes before adding all the peppers. Continue to sauté mixture until peppers are soft. Stir in spices, cook a couple minutes until vegetables are thoroughly coated, and add to beans.

Serve with shredded cheese, sour cream, chopped onion, cilantro, and copious quantities of beer.

GO HAWKS!!!


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

2014 Pacific Northwest Book Award

I'm excited to share the news that The Mushroom Hunters has won a 2014 Pacific Northwest Book Award! Some of my favorite writers are past winners; my head is spinning...

A sincere and heartfelt thank you to all those readers and bookstores across the region for their support. I've been overwhelmed by enthusiasm for the book, and it goes without saying that this has been a dream of mine—to journey deep into nature's secret garden and come back with a story that resonates with a wide audience—so I'm incredibly grateful.

I'd also like to acknowledge two arts foundations that provided financial support at critical junctures, enabling my "boots-on-the-ground" research in far-flung places: Artist Trust and 4Culture. The work they do to promote the creative process cannot be overstated.

On Saturday, February 8, at 7 p.m., I'll be at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle for the award ceremony. Elliott Bay is my local. It's where my first book event was held, and I look forward to coming full circle for this occasion. Hope to see some of you there!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Grouper Sandwich

One of my most favorite sammies in the world is a flaky yet succulent grouper sandwich, preferably served with fries, cole slaw, pickle spear, and cold beer. To get such a treat you should go to southwestern Florida, where you might be temped by other similar delights...a soft-shelled crab sandwich, say, or even an oyster po'boy. But the crab sandwich can be readily procured in a Maryland clam shack in season, and the oyster po'boy, as the name implies, reaches sacrament status where the term po'boy was invented, New Orleans.

For grouper, you go to Florida.

The thing is, while in Florida you might make the acquaintance of some other flaky, white-fleshed fishies, some of which might even rival the grouper in taste if not name. The place is lousy with good-eating gilled critters.

On vacation recently I met a couple of these other fish that you won't find on the Mucky Duck's chalkboard, or any other bar menu for that matter, and I have to say they were every bit as personable as the grouper. Luckily I had my boy with me, because he's the one who made the introductions. I could only dredge up one hapless catfish after another, while the kid hooked a whole aquarium of warm-water swimmers in the mangrove-shaded back bays of Naples. We ended up keeping a couple of black drums and a nice sheepshead.

Back at the shack I was disappointed to find a general lack of flour in the cupboards. This was vacation after all. No problem. We put a stack of stale Triscuits into a blender usually reserved for that other Florida specialty, the Planter's Punch, along with handfuls of Cape Cod potato chips and mixed cocktail nuts, plus a dash of Old Bay seasoning and some salt. Voila. A perfectly acceptable dry batter. Next I cut up the fillets into sandwich-sized portions, egged them, and rolled in the batter before frying in ample butter and finishing with a generous squeeze of lemon. The rest of the sandwich is academic: a fairly soft French roll or poppy-seed bun, shredded lettuce, and thinly sliced tomato. We also whipped up a batch of homemade tartar sauce with mayo and chopped pickle.

I wonder how many Florida natives would have discerned the truth about my homemade "grouper" sandwich. And how many reputable establishments are serving "grouper" with the fry cook's catch on his day off? If I lived in southwest Florida I'd definitely be one of those guys you curse at while driving the obstacle course that is the Tamiami Trail, one of those guys fishing from a bridge abutment on an already narrow two-lane blacktop lined with traffic hazards like birdwatchers, panther crossing signs, and orchid thieves.

Florida may be overloaded with white shoes and blue hair, but it's paradise for grouper groupies.