Monday, March 31, 2008

Pass the Dandies


Here's a thought experiment: Your buddies blindfold you and take you to the local, where you have your usual draft. Someone orders up a plate of Fried Dandies. Hmm...that sounds good, if unfamiliar and maybe a little twee. You munch one down and grab another. Then another. The taste is hard to place. The Fried Dandies are light and crunchy on the outside and a little bit squishy on the inside, but not like seafood. They're fresh and bright. They're addictive. You remove the blindfold. Fried dandelion blossoms? Are you kidding? 'Fraid not, son. Now have another. It's good for you!

Fried Dandies*

36-48 large** dandelion blossoms
1 cup flour
1 cup ice water
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg

Remove as much of the dandelion stem and greenery as possible without damaging the blossom itself. Heat oil in a skillet on medium high. Mix flour and salt in a bowl. Add ice water and stir. Blend in egg. Use tongs to submerge dandelion blossoms in batter and drop in hot oil. Fry in shifts. Serve with beer.

* adapted from Peter Gail's Dandelion Celebration.

** The biggest and best dandelions can be found in abandoned lots and field margins—places that see neither mowing nor herbicides. When allowed to grow freely, dandelions can reach impressive size, with blossoms a few inches across.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dandelicious Omelet


I've been talking up superfoods all month. For most of us in temperate regions, our bodies are transitioning from the rigors of winter into the working season (even if we're working indoors at desks now). Wild greens—many known as "weeds" by the establishment such as stinging nettles and dandelions—aid that transition. They're high in vitamins and minerals; they have lots of fiber and protein. Folks of yore knew all about them. They made teas and tonics of the superfoods and ate them like vegetables.

Besides the obvious health benefits, there are more modern reasons to harvest wild superfoods. Take a look at my lawn from the street and it looks okay. Not great, but not overrun by so-called weeds. Look a little closer and you'll see plenty of robust green weed clusters competing with the frail grass, dandelions especially. Only these dandelions don't have the hydra-like yellow manes to give them away and irritate the neighbors. Where did all the flowers go?

Into my belly, is where. Just a few minutes of snip-snip-snipping out in the front yard and I had enough for an omelet (i.e. a half cup of buds for a small 2-egg omelet). I targeted all the buds that were partially open, with flower stalks exposed halfway down the buds. You can use closed buds as well, but I figured I'd get the first round of ready-to-bloom dandies and then harvest another batch in a few days. Clip off the stem, saute in butter a few minutes (until they fully open) and pour in the eggs. As easy as that.

The taste of a fried dandelion bud is hard to explain. It's certainly not your usual domesticated fare—it's savory with a touch of bite, though not bitter, and earthy like wild mushrooms. In an omelet, it's dandelicious. Said Marty: "What's that flavor? It's like a burst of spring, almost citrusy. Like nibbling on a little bit of sunshine."

Just one more reason to let your lawn do its own thing.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Farmed and Dangerous

The New York Times exposes the fraud of salmon farming yet again, as a virus called infectious salmon anemia is killing millions of farmed salmon in Chile and in turn contaminating the environment.

Money quote: Salmon feces and food pellets are stripping the water of oxygen, killing other marine life and spreading disease, biologists and environmentalists say. Escaped salmon are eating other fish species and have begun invading rivers and lakes as far away as neighboring Argentina, researchers say.

Here's the view from a local commercial fisherman: The salmon companies “are robbing us of our wealth,” said Victor Guttierrez, a fisherman from Cochamó, a town ringing the Gulf of Reloncavi, which is dotted with salmon farms. “They bring illnesses and then leave us with the problems.”

To learn more about why you should only eat wild salmon, click here.

Hardwired Foraging

Check out this CNN story on what they refer to as "extreme recycling."

Quote: Jumping into a garbage bin may sound scary, but Nelson, 52, who lives in Brooklyn, says it's no big deal. Humans, she says, are "hardwired to be foragers."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Dandy Time

It's high time for dandelions in Seattle right now and presumably elsewhere. Northern regions of the interior still locked in snow will have to wait another month. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm not a big fan of the prissy American lawn, that one-note symphony of righteousness that seems to suggest moral rectitude on the part of the homeowner willing to commit himself to a never-ending battle with weeds. This position becomes even more indefensible when one stops to consider the nutritional and culinary value of the enemy.

So, for the neighbors' benefit, I've been doing my part to rid the lawn of weeds. By eating them.

In a quest for superfoods to kick and roll out of winter, FOTL has been enjoying dandy salads for the past month, and sharing the bounty with other...shall we say more skeptical eaters. But in the last week we've had a massive dandelion blossoming across the city, meaning it's now time to change tactics. The leaves of dandelions are delicious while still young and tender. Raw, they have a bite not unlike socially acceptable salad greens such as escarole or chicory. They can also be steamed as a side vegetable, or cooked with a chunk of saltpork like collards.

Once the buds form, though, the leaves start to become bitter. This is when I turn to my trusty copy of The Dandelion Celebration by Dr. Peter Gail, director of the Goosefoot Acres Center for Wild Vegetable Research and Education. Dr. Gail includes recipes for the whole kit-and-caboodle: In addition to 40 pages devoted to just the leafy greens we also get 30-plus that make use of closed buds, opened buds, full flowers, and those amazing (dastardly to lawncare professionals) taproots.

A few examples of recipes using the buds and flowers: Dandelion Flower Muffins, Dandelion Fritters, numerous variations on Dandelion Wine, and the Dandy Omelet. Using roots: Dandelion Coffee and even Dandelion Root Ice Cream (a recipe originally submitted by our own local Herbfarm Restaurant).

In the past I've stuck with the tried and true raw greens. This year we're going deep into the catalog. Expect future reports on the buds (apparently they pop open when fried) and maybe even the roots, although FOTL isn't quite prepared to give up his dark roast morning java, even if it's decaf.

The King Is...Dead?


A story has been developing in the last few weeks about the Sacramento River and its mysteriously vanishing run of chinook, or king, salmon. Last year's run was 10 percent of the run just five years ago, and this year's is projected to be even smaller. The San Francisco Chronicle has an update.

Is this really a surprise?

Certainly salmon runs fluctuate over time. But when hit with the multi-whammy of dams, development, irrigation, timber harvest, pollution, and innumerable other man-made affronts, even these incredibly resilient fish are finally waving the white flag. What really disturbs me is that the current low runs in the Sacramento might be seen by my children as not so bad when they're older. This phenomenon is known as the shifting baseline syndrome, and it's at the heart of our predicament.

It's painful to imagine a day when salmon swim mostly in city fountains. (Photo by Stephen Rees)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Morel Mania Picking Up


The reports are coming in faster now. Morels are popping in the Peach State. Tennessee and Arkansas are starting to flush, and the mania is marching up the East Coast to both Carolinas and even Virginia. Positive reports are coming out of Missouri, and morels are messing with Texas. Meanwhile, the West Coast is gaining steam. The first morel sighting of the year came from San Diego on February 24, and Oregon had morels by early March, though not in significant numbers. The first sighting near FOTL's stomping ground hit the wire on March 17, from Bainbridge Island, WA. These were "beauty bark" or landscape morels, early fruiters that stow away in commercial mulches and wood-chips. You can often find these morels in cities and towns, but make sure the mulch hasn't been sprayed with any nasty chemicals before eating them.

A good place to get an overview of what's happening nationwide is the Morel Mushroom Hunting Club's report page.

And you can score at home by following this progress map.

If you've found morels, leave a comment for FOTL.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Stinging Nettle Lasagna with Dandelion Salad


"Wake up, it's spring!" sing the critters in my daughter's favorite book of the moment. Indeed. It's about time for a shot of vernal equinox. For those of us who need an extra boost, try mainlining a dose of spring with Stinging Nettle Lasagna, the perfect way to ring in the season. Nettles have been used for millennia to transition the body from the rigors of a long winter. Their taste is wild and woolly—far less housebroken than spinach. And nutritionally, they make spinach look like junk food.

Coupled with a Dandelion Salad, you can't do yourself better.

For the lasagna, first make the sauce and let it simmer while you're tending to the other ingredients. All you need is a simple red sauce:

2 28 oz cans diced tomatoes
1 6 oz can tomato paste
Several cloves garlic, minced
1 yellow onion, diced
oregano and/or basil to taste
1 tbsp sugar
salt and pepper
1/4 cup olive oil

Heat olive oil in large skillet. Saute onions and garlic until soft. Pour in diced tomatoes and simmer, adding water occasionally to cook down tomatoes. Cook at least 30 minutes (the longer, the better) before adding tomato paste, herbs, and sugar. This will make more than enough sauce for a large lasagna.

While the sauce is simmering, prepare the pasta and filling:

12 lasagna noodles
1 32 oz tub of ricotta cheese
1 16 oz ball of mozzarella, grated
Large bunch of stinging nettles, washed and chopped (4-6 cups cooked)

Boil a large pot of water for nettles and lasagna. Blanch stinging nettles 1 minute, remove to salad spinner to drain excess water, and chop. In large bowl mix together nettles and ricotta cheese. Cook pasta in same boiling water, now green with all sorts of good vitamins and nutrients, until al dente. Layer 13 x 9 inch baking dish with enough sauce to cover bottom. Arrange 3-4 lasagna noodles. Cover with 1/2 nettle-ricotta mixture. Spoon over sauce and sprinkle with 1/3 mozzarella. Repeat: noodles, remaining nettle-ricotta mixture, sauce, and 1/3 mozzarella. Add one more layer of noodles followed by remaining sauce and final 1/3 mozzarella.

Cover with foil and bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand 15 minutes.

For the Dandelion Salad, go snip some dandelion leaves in your yard or a nearby park. Make sure you select only those tender young dandelions that haven't bloomed yet. Mix the leaves with lettuce or other spring greens.

Voila: A shot of vernal equinox. Happy spring everyone!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Superfood #3


Is there anything more pedestrian in suburban America than the carefully manicured front lawn? As a place to play catch and kick a soccer ball, I'll let you have your backyard turf. But that front lawn of tidy green grass running from door to sidewalk? That monochromatic parcel of mindless geometry? It needs to go.

My neighbors are forever grappling with the weeds that so easily out-wit them. They pull and mow and dump gallons of fertilizers and herbicides, never mind the ever-dwindling salmon that drink in the polluted run-off. Meanwhile we've let our own lawn go to hell, earning the hairy eyeball as property values around us take the hit. One day I'll rip out the lawn altogether and replace its humdrum bed of grass with a more visually stimulating rock garden of some sort, with native plants that don't require constant coddling. In the interim I'll make use of the lawn's best feature.

The dandelions.

For millennia the dandelion was revered for its medicinal qualities. Consumptives ate its roots in winter and its tender leaves in spring and were restored to health. Now we have vitamin supplements and the once mighty dandelion has been consigned to a long list of pests to be stamped out.

It's too bad, because people are missing the boat. The vitamin game is no way to stay healthy. Study after study shows that vitamins absorbed through food are far more salubrious than any supplement. I've already posted about two "superfoods"—the stinging nettle and watercress. Now add the lowly dandelion to the list. Turns out it's bursting with vitamins and trace minerals, in part because of those exasperating taproots that can reach two feet or more down into the soil. According to Dr. Peter Gail, president of Defenders of Dandelions, these common weeds "contain more beta-carotene than carrots, more potassium than bananas, more lecithin than soybeans, more iron than spinach, and loads of Vitamins A, C, E, thiamin and riboflavin, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium."

I guess one of these afternoons when the sun is out I'll resuscitate our ancient lawn mower and make my neighbors happy. But first I've got some dandelions to harvest.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Superfood #2: Watercress


I've already posted about one wild superfood, stinging nettles. Here's another: watercress. Besides being really tasty and good for you to boot, watercress is available nearly year-round in much of its range. It's one of the few greens you can gather in January in these parts. By late winter or early spring it kicks into gear and becomes prolific in some places. I harvested the above watercress from a clean mountain stream while hunting for truffles the other day. The elk prints all over the banks made it clear that I was not the only mammal eager for a crisp, fresh salad.

Gnocchi with Tomatoes, Pancetta, and Wilted Watercress

2 oz. pancetta, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
2 tsp red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp salt
1 lb gnocchi
4 oz watercress, tough stems removed, coarsely chopped (6 cups packed—but you can make do with half that amount)
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Cook pancetta over medium heat in skillet until it begins to brown. Add garlic, stirring for 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, sugar, and crushed red pepper, stirring until tomatoes are almost completely broken down, about 5 minutes. Stir in vinegar and salt. Remove from heat.
2. Boil gnocchi until they float, 3 to 5 minutes (or according to package instructions). Place watercress in colander and drain gnocchi over watercress, wilting it slightly. Add gnocchi and watercress to sauce in pan; toss. Serve immediately with Parmesan. Makes 4 servings of about 1 cup each.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Careful Harvest


Here at FOTL we're in full nettle harvest mode. The other day I found Stinging Nettle Nirvana. The combative buggers were everywhere. It was a bushwhacker's nightmare. The only problem is these huge patches are on city property... Scofflawing aside, the time is now to harvest. (Don't forget your rubber gloves.) Soon the nettles near sea level will be too big. I've been finding the best ones in shady areas; nettles in full sun or even partial sun are much more robust and less tender, while the wispy shade-dwellers can be nipped off stalk and all.

We've got nettles drying on screens with a fan on high, nettles in bags waiting to be blanched and frozen, and a bucket of Sweet Potato Nettle Soup in the fridge. Soon the nettles will start emerging higher up in elevation. That's one of the many nice things about living close to mountains: the season is much longer. Foragers in the flat states have about a month or six weeks to gather their nettles before they become too bitter and stringy. Here in the Northwest, our season starts in late February and extends well into June. The same is true for morels. While May is morel month in much of the country, I've seen reports of morels found on north-facing slopes in the Cascades well into September.

I saw my first salmonberry blossoms the other day while picking nettles. Seems kind of late for this area. No doubt the overwintering Anna's hummingbirds have these early flowers dialed in.

The Tastemaker

Today's Seattle Times has an informative profile of Jon Rowley, the food consultant who first brought us Copper River salmon. Say what you will about the marketing of Alaskan salmon—Rowley taught commercial fishermen how to handle their catch so the flavor and freshness wouldn't be lost on the long trek to market. More recently he's been behind the Northwest's growing oyster trade.

Quote: He fished for a decade, taking winters off to travel in Europe. And the same question he had asked himself as a young man kept haunting him: Why did the food in Europe taste so much better than the food back home?

The article is written by Peter Lewis, former owner of Campagne.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Eureka!


The truffle game is a steep learning curve. I made scouting missions here and here earlier this winter. Then I joined a few other rookies to go here. All three forays proved skunks. Last Friday I had the good fortune to meet a pair of would-be truffle hunters at the Survivor's Banquet. L. and P., it turned out, lived on a Christmas tree farm in the Cascade foothills. Barely able to contain myself, I told them how truffle hunters down in Oregon were known to target such habitats. We made a date.

Yesterday I met another hopeful truffler, W., just off the highway and we proceeded to L. and P.'s home up the road. Huge century-old stumps decorated the property. Rows of Christmas trees dotted the meadows and older stands of mostly Douglas-fir filled out the remainder of the acreage. A steady rain swelled the five creeks that tumbled down off the ridge and gurgled across the property, one of which drove a Pelton wheel that powered the place. Piles of fresh elk droppings waited for an errant footfall. It was a magical setting to be sure.

Armed with potato rakes, we visited stand after stand without luck, guided by S., a cheerful 75-year-old local logger. We walked and raked, walked and raked. All the while the rain came down and runneled off our hoods. Truffles, it seemed, would continue to elude me. After lunch S. suggested we visit another timber stand he had worked on down the road. The trees here were about the same age class—20 to 30 years old—but they were packed in tighter, with less light filtering through, and hence, less undergrowth. S. grumbled about the poor thinning practices in this dense stand while the rest of us oohed and ahhed at what seemed like perfect truffle habitat: young Doug-firs, sparse groundcover, and a deep, loose duff composition.

L. struck paydirt first. She followed a vole hole with her rake and came away with a gumball-sized nugget. We all took a whiff. Yowza! Talk about a fecund, gnarly aroma. It smelled of overripe fruit and other more lusty odors. W. found a couple wormy ones past their prime, and then I unearthed a large, double-nobbed specimen. This one, though, lacked the pungent aroma of the first. I sliced it open. The marbling and soft, cheese-like interior gave it the textbook appearance of an Oregon black truffle, Leucangium carthusianum.

I am a truffle virgin no more.

To be honest, though, I think we're late in the season for Oregon blacks. We were actually hoping to find the Oregon spring white truffle, Tuber gibbosum. These critters look to be a tad long in the tooth. One of my fellow mycophagists over at the Cascade Mycological Society's forum has suggested that these specimens exhibit evidence of frost damage, based on the dark marbling.

So now I'm waiting to see if the big one develops an aroma. I've got it wrapped in a paper napkin and sealed in a Ziplock in the fridge. I'll know if it ripens because the whole kitchen will start to smell. More likely, my truffle is indeed frost-burned and will rot instead. That's okay. Even if I don't get to cook with it, I'm relieved to be off the schneid.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Jarhead

If you had told me a decade ago that looking at a bunch of jars gave you heart palpitations...well, I'd have said get a life. Now here I am. Staring at a bunch of jars with heart palpitations. You see, I'm imagining these jars filled with dried morels, boletes, nettles, and countless other wild goodies. I've been looking all over town for jars like these. Finally found a place called The Container Store over in Bellevue. The jars are Italian (always a good sign when it comes to food). They have metal clamps and rubber gaskets. They're hermetically sealed. These jars will hopefully put an end to Mothfest. And they look pretty good lined up on the countertop.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hey Chowdah!


The rain is back. Time to make soup. (Really, just another excuse to chip away at the wall of vacuum-sealed razor clam bricks in my freezer...as if I needed an excuse.)

For both fish and clam chowders I hew closely to the classic New England recipe outlined by Mark Bittman in How to Cook Everything, although unlike Bittman, I prefer using a generous roux of melted butter and flour to thicken the chowder. That said, I’ll never go back to my earliest love of the whipped and creamy style so thick you can spread it on toast points, not since working in my youth at a Martha’s Vineyard restaurant famous for its chowder. Between us, that miraculous, float-a-cherry-on-top creaminess didn’t come from any particular technique or wizardry in the kitchen; it came from giant cans labeled “Chowder Base.”

I also like to slice the onions into wide half-moons and heap in a generous amount of thyme.

Razor Clam Chowder

2 cups chopped razor clams
4-5 strips of thick, quality bacon, diced
1 large onion, sliced into wide half-moons
2-3 cups peeled and cubed potato
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
1 quart chicken stock
1 pint heavy cream (or half and half)
1 tsp dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste

Sauté bacon in heavy pot, then remove with slotted spoon (or not). Sauté onions 1 minute in bacon fat, add potatoes and cook 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove onion-potato mixture for later use. Melt butter and mix in flour to make roux. Slowly add stock over medium heat. Return onions and potatoes and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add thyme and seasonings. Slowly add cream and clams and cook over low heat. Serve piping hot, as my dad always says, with good bread.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Nettlesome Paradox: Stinging Nettle Soup


A wise man once said it is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. I thought about the merits of this argument as I skulked around the patch, keeping a lookout for any joggers, dog-walkers, or other unsuspecting law-abiders. This was city property, after all, and though my quarry was generally classified as a weed—and a belligerent one at that—I wasn't relishing an opportunity to explain my quest for local superfoods to the authorities. A couple power-walkers chugged by and then a birdwatcher, who failed to notice a pileated woodpecker hammering on a snag right above our heads. Now the coast was, as they say, clear. I pulled on my rubber gloves, got down in the dirt, and drew my kitchen shears. Stinging nettle soup was on the menu...

It didn't take long before a nettle caught me in an unguarded moment. The sleeve of my shirt had inched up enough above my glove to reveal an isthmus of vulnerable skin at the wrist. Ouch! The sting, while not nearly as painful as a yellowjacket or fire ant, works on similar principles: tiny hairs deliver a jolt of formic acid and histamine. Unlike a bee sting, though, a brush with nettles tends to linger for several hours. But then, never did a plant hurt so good. Nettles are one of the most nutritious greens on the planet. This may seem paradoxical until you consider that a tasty elixir of spring must have appealed immensely to animals stirring awake from winter slumbers, and so the nettle has evolved a formidable defense. As with mushrooms, you have to wonder about the process of trial-and-error that took place before humans learned how to safely gather and eat nettles. Turns out, cooked or dried they lose their sting.

Foraging for stinging nettles has the added bonus pleasure of getting one outside and into the early spring woodlands. The chorus of birdsong, to name one of my favorite signs of the season, has picked up dramatically in the last week. Sure, the robins—those over-achievers of the avian world—have been singing since late January. But as I arrived at my patch I heard roving bands of pine siskins chittering in the treetops. A mixed flock of kinglets, chickadees, and nuthatches gossiped lower in the canopy. The high-pitched bragging of brown creepers ("see-see-look-at-me") rang out through the woods. Indian plums were just leafing out, with a few brave rosettes testing the air, and the first bright green leaves of spring wildflowers were unfurling out of the duff. All of this potent reawakening is part of the nettle.

Stinging Nettle Soup

4 tbsp butter
1 medium Walla Walla Sweet, or yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut up
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups water
1 large bunch stinging nettles
nutmeg or other spices
salt and pepper to taste
heavy cream

Saute the onions in butter until near caramelized. Add the garlic and potatoes and cook over medium heat several minutes. Spice to taste. Add stock and water and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add nettles, stir, and cover. Cook 10 minutes on a low boil. Puree in blender, food mill, or processor, then return to pot. Add stock or cream if necessary; check seasoning. Serve with heavy cream.

The finished soup will be sweetened by the caramelized onion and thickened by the potato, but the real treat is the vernal shot of nettle. Reminiscent of spinach though wilder, nettles have a fresh, peppery zing that evokes the moist woodlands of their home. Later in the spring, when the days are warmer, you can omit the potatoes/cream and skip the puree step to simply enjoy a refreshing soup of chopped nettles. There are few foods better for you—or tastier


Sunday, March 9, 2008

Morel and Sage Ravioli


Last week I posted about the benefits of having friends who like to forage. This week I offer a corollary: friends who like to cook your foraged foods for you.

Jani and Kathy handed the arrivees whiskey sours before handing out the tasks. I was to weigh three ounces of my dried morels with a postal scale; others picked sage in the backyard and chopped tomatoes. More whiskey sours, more tasks. (There are ways to put your guests to work...)

When the whiskey was done we sat down to a delicious meal of Morel and Sage Ravioli, Caesar's Salad, and Gamache red. Hearty thanks to the Thomases. They can cook our morels any time!

From The New Basics Cookbook:

1/4 cup Cognac
1/4 cup chicken stock
1 ounce dried morels
1 cup fresh sage leaves
8 tbsp (1 stick) butter
3 fresh plum tomatoes, diced
cooking oil
1 pound cheese-filled ravioli
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted

1. Bring morels and stock to boil, stir in morels, cover, and put aside for 30 minutes.
2. Set aside 12 good sage leaves and coarsely chop remaining sage.
3. Drain morels using sieve, reserving liquid; squeeze morels to remove excess liquid and halve.
4. Saute morels and chopped sage in butter for 5 minutes. Add morel stock and tomatoes. Simmer until tender (about 5 minutes); cover and put aside.
5. Heat cooking oil in small saucepan, then fry reserved 12 sage leaves in two or three batches and remove to paper towels. Cook until crispy but still green (about 10 seconds in hot oil).
6. Cook ravioli. Drain and toss with sauce and toasted pine nuts. Top with crispy fried sage leaves. Serves 4 smallish portions.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Survivor's Banquet


Tonight was the annual Survivor's Banquet of the Puget Sound Mycological Society, to honor all those who have made it through another season of mushroom hunting and cookery. Dinner included a Croatian Soup of Napa Cabbage and Matsutake; Baby Mushroom Fritters on a Bed of Baby Greens; Chicken Schnitzel with Wild Mushroom Ragout; and a Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse on Spiced Pear (pictured above).

I dig the mushroom people. They're so unapologetically beyond wacky. A few of them looked like they'd just woken up under toadstools. One wore an Amanita muscaria wizard's cap. At the end of the night, on my way out of the men's room, I met an old guy in suspenders. He looked like a logger—or maybe a Berkeley professor. His shock of white hair was combed back and just long enough to hint at a ponytail in earlier years. He walked with a slight limp. "Any psychedelics tonight?" he asked me in a gravelly voice, an impish twinkle in his eye. It was a reasonable question. The club formed in 1965. You'd have to guess there were a few members who were primarily interested in finding magic mushrooms back then. And while still plenty of old hippies hang on in this bunch, nowadays it's mostly folks who simply like to get outside and scratch around in the dirt (including those old hippies, too).

What I like about mycological clubs, birdwatching groups, botany societies and the rest is that these are people who are curious about the world around them, not the alternate reality shining out of the box in the living room.

Check out this happy mushroomer:

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Super Foods












When I started this blog a few short months ago, I expected it to revolve mainly around my interests in food, cooking, the outdoors, and foraging, with the occasional dose of conservation and an environmental screed or two. The more I delve into it, the more I find myself returning to the braided themes of human health and planetary health. Michael Pollan puts it succinctly in the three-sentence manifesto of his new book, In Defense of Food: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He's not trying to be cute when he says "Eat food." Most of what we find in the supermarket today would not be regarded as such by earlier generations. Real food shouldn't come in a box. It shouldn't have unpronounceable ingredients and make exaggerated health claims.

So I've been trying to cut processed foods out of my diet. Not an easy thing to do. Flour is a highly processed food. Most beef is highly processed. I'm trying to eat whole foods: seasonal vegetables and local organic meats (and foraged foods when I can). Since the New Year I've lost 20 pounds. I'm approaching my college freshman weight. My energy levels are up.

I'm really getting into plants, too. The last two years I've kept a winter garden. Can I say that kale is one of my favorite foods now? If you're used to Chicken McNuggets and Doritos, this might be a hard claim to swallow, but I can honestly say that kale stir-fried with garlic and a little soy is a go-to dish for me. That said, the research I've been doing of late suggests that even most garden vegetables, grown organically at home with love, still pale in comparison to what are known as "superfoods."

Most superfoods are found in the wild. They've been around since before humans first came down out of the trees. Blueberries and salmon are two foods that top many lists. Such foods have enormous amounts of minerals, vitamins, proteins, and Omega-3 fatty acids. Scientists are only now getting a handle on them. Many are herbs; many are considered pests by the establishment: dandelions, stinging nettles, lambsquarters, watercress, purslane. People have known about them for millennia, but it seems we're mostly in a forgetful mood lately.

I've identified a few superfoods that grow wild in my habitat. In future posts this spring I'll be foraging these foods and cooking them. If I sound like I've become a wild-eyed believer...well, maybe I have.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

It's almost time...

Hold onto your baskets, the Morel Hour approaches. A report of San Diego "beauty bark" morels came in on Feb. 24, and a hunter in Gold Hill, OR, reports finding 13 yesterday, March 3rd. It seems a little early, especially considering the winter we've had and the trickle of reports coming out of Southern Cal, but morels like to mess with our heads. More likely this time of year are the morel look-alike relatives: Verpas (Verpa bohemica and Verpa conica), which prefer riparian bottomlands in our neck of the woods, particularly the cottonwood forests along river corridors; and false morels, also known as snowbank morels, which can often be found in the same habitat as true morels, only earlier in the season, when snow is still on the ground.

FOTL will be monitoring morel reports from around the country to bring you the latest news, but he doesn't expect to be looking himself anytime before next month. Unlike previous years, the camellias in FOTL's yard still have not bloomed, and a quick gander at Washington State's snowpack surveys for the Olympics and Cascades reveals a higher than normal accumulation for every station, including Snoqualmie Pass, which is 120 percent of normal, and Crystal Mountain, which is 147 percent of normal. That's a lot of snow yet, folks!

Oh, and by the way, if you find a false morel, think twice about eating it. Yes, I know, old crotchety mushroom hunters in different parts of the country talk about eating false morels all their life with nuthin' bad come of it, but get this: scientists have isolated the chemical properties of this fungi and discovered that an active ingredient called gyromitrin is the same compound when metabolized as monomethylhydrazine—also known as rocket fuel! You can read more about the toxicity of false morels here.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Beef Burgundy with Porcini and Chanterelles


Recently I picked up a used first edition of Jane Grigson's The Mushroom Feast to give me ideas for my large store of wild foraged mushrooms. The book is as much a feast for the eyes and mind as a cookbook, with tasteful line drawings and Grigson's signature authoritative prose. In fact, I've been so in awe of the book that I haven't cooked a single dish out of it—until last night. My choice: Boeuf a la Bourguignonne, to which I made a couple adjustments, including the addition of dried and reconstituted wild porcini (king boletes) and the substitution of sauteed chanterelles for champignons.

Admittedly, it's not an easy first recipe to tackle. Beef Burgundy (in the English spelling) is beyond classic; it's a trip deep into the catalog, when French cooking was the be and all. The Gloucester-born Grigson even gets in a hometown dig in the opening sentence, assuring her readers that the dish "has nothing to do with the watery, stringy mixture served up in British institutions." Ouch.

The presence of a "bouquet garni" is usually a good indication of just how deep in the catalog you're spelunking, and as with most versions, Grigson urges her followers to make the preparation a two-day event so that the flavors can properly marry and any excess fat can be allowed to rise to the top where it can be readily skimmed off. (FOTL isn't worried in the least about fat—excess or not—but he still stuck to the 48-hour sked.)

Before we get to the cooking bit, allow me a quick digression as to why I landed on page 190 of The Mushroom Feast. We had a nearly full bottle of Smoking Loon cabernet in the fridge, which someone had brought over weeks ago during our annual "Hair Shirt" post-New Year dry period. Rather than let it spoil, we popped it in the fridge with the idea of making Drunken Pork.

A few years ago this middling, heavily marketed wine arrived on the racks and was an immediate sensation among some of our friends who don't really like wine. The vaguely aboriginal label design, lightened by the bird sucking on a big stogie, seemed to suggest a vintage that was approachable. At around $10 it couldn't be terrible, right? No, just forgettable. The damn bird started making regular appearances at our dinner parties. We finally had to do a wine tasting for some of our friends to show them just how poor a choice it was, how they had been taken in by a marketing machine. For the same price as a bottle of Loon you can get a much more interesting value wine—just go to your local wine shop rather than a supermarket.

A refreshing line in Grigson's recipe for Beef Burgundy told us we had landed on the right page: "If you use a cheap red wine, rather than a Burgundy, compensate for the thinner flavour by adding a tablespoon of sugar." It's hard to imagine Marcella advocating the same work-around for her Pot Roast Amarone. The Loon now had a home.

Ingredients

2-3 pounds of beef chuck, cubed

MARINADE:

3 cups red wine
1/3 cup brandy
1 large onion, sliced
bouquet garni (parsley, sage, bay leaf, rosemary, thyme)
12 peppercorns
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt

SAUCE:

4 tbsp butter
1/2 pound bacon, diced
2 large onions, chopped
several carrots, cut up
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1-3 oz dried porcini, pulverized & rehydrated
2 1/2 tbsp flour
beef or chicken stock (plus leftover porcini stock)
bouquet garni (from marinade)
2 tbsp sugar (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

GARNISH:

1 pound fresh chanterelles (or 1/2 pound frozen dry-sauteed chanterelles)
parsley, minced

1. Cube beef and set aside in marinade for at least six hours.
2. Saute bacon in butter, transfer to large casserole dish with slotted spoon.
3. Remove meat from marinade (save marinade for later), pat dry and brown, then transfer to casserole.
4. Saute onions, carrots, mushrooms and garlic, in turn, then transfer to casserole.
5. Sprinkle flour into pan juices, cook for a moment.
6. Add strained marinade into pan to make smooth sauce.
7. Pour sauce into casserole and add enough stock to cover meat, plus bouquet garni and optional sugar.
8. Cover casserole and cook with low heat in oven or on stove top, 2-3 hours.

The porcini and mushroom stock add an earthy bass note to the usual preparation of Beef Burgundy, while the sweet fruitiness of the chanterelles makes an accompaniment that is more arresting than store-bought button mushrooms. We served the dish over egg noodles to sop up the rich gravy. As Jane Grigson points out in her first sentence of the recipe description, the dish owes little to a traditional beef stew. The meat is "fall off the bone" tender and each bite carries with it a plangent taste of red wine. Speaking of which, a meal like this demands an appropriate pairing. We picked a 2004 Syzygy cabernet sauvignon.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Foragers' Saturday Night Feast


Foragers host outstanding dinner parties. Last night we supped with the Coras, good friends and excellent cooks. The meal included a pheasant bagged by Chris this fall, roasted with pancetta; a casserole of wild rice, morels, chanterelles, and dried pears (see recipe); and sauteed kale from their winter garden. Note the orange fat layering the pheasant. You don't find that on domesticated birds. Good wine and conversation flowed and many foraging plans were laid for spring. Big thanks to the Coras for a memorable feast.

Wild Rice & Mushroom Stuffing (thanks to Lori Cora)

2 cups wild rice
1 cup long-grain white rice
8 tbsp (1 stick) butter
3 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 1/4 pounds assorted wild mushrooms, sliced
5 cups chicken broth
3 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
3 tsp fresh sage, chopped
1 3/4 cups dried pears, about 7 ounces, coarsely chopped (optional)
3/4 to 1 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped

Melt 4 tbsp butter in heavy pot over medium heat. Sauté onions until caramelized, about 25 minutes. Transfer onions to large bowl. Melt remaining 4 tbsp butter in same pot over medium-high heat. Sauté mushrooms and 1 tbsp thyme. Add to bowl with onions. Season with salt and pepper.

Bring broth, 1 tbsp thyme, and 2 tsp sage to boil in large, deep saucepan. Mix in wild rice; return to boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 30 minutes. Mix in white rice; cover and simmer until all rice is tender and almost all liquid is absorbed, about 18 minutes longer. Stir in caramelized onions and mushrooms, remaining 1 tbsp thyme, and 1 tsp sage. Stir in pears, if desired. Cover and simmer 5 minutes, stirring often. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in 3/4 cup parsley.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously butter glass baking dish. Transfer stuffing to dish and cover with buttered foil. Bake until heated through, about 40 minutes. Uncover and bake until top is slightly crisp and golden, another 15-20 minutes.

Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley over stuffing and serve.


Red Currant Jelly Sauce (for pheasant or any fowl)

2/3 cup red currant jelly
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp red wine vinegar
3/4 tsp oregano, thyme, or mixture, chopped (if dry, finely crumbled)
1/2 tsp Tabasco or favorite hot sauce
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp coarsely ground black pepper

In a small sauce pan, combine all ingredients. Place over medium heat and cook until jelly is melted. Do not boil. Remove from heat. Keeps refrigerated up to a month.

A River's Return

Today's Seattle Times has a story about efforts to start rehabilitating Washington State's Elwha River in advance of dam removal scheduled to begin after 2010. The local Klallam Indian tribe has been placing hundreds of spawned-out salmon carcasses into the river above the dams to mimic conditions of anadromous fish runs.

Quote: "We are looking at how it affects the freshwater food web, and is it stimulating algae growth and creating food for invertebrates," said Sarah Morley, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric research ecologist in Seattle who developed the project.

The Elwha was one of the Northwest's great salmon rivers before it was illegally dammed in the early 20th century. Five species of salmon returned to the river each year, including legendary chinook in excess of 100 pounds. (To learn more about the Elwha and its salmon, check out Jim Lichatowich's definitive account of declining Northwest salmon runs, Salmon Without Rivers.)

As with the eruption of Mount St. Helens, scientists have a golden opportunity to study the before-and-after effects of a major environmental event. They also need to prepare the river for what hopefully will be an epic "comeback" story.

What's so cool about the impending dam removal is that most of the watershed won't require the sort of restoration that is usually necessary in such projects. The Elwha above the dams is in pristine condition (except for air-borne pollution we read about earlier this week) and is protected by Olympic National Park. The river is ready and waiting for salmon and steelhead to once again migrate up its waters. Bring it on!