Sunday, June 29, 2008

Buttoned Up

You say you didn't land any spring kings despite the fisheries biologists' predictions of a banner year? Me neither. But spring Chinook are not the only kings of the season. The fungal kingdom has its own spring royalty—king boletes—and though the exact species name is up for grabs, we can all agree that what the Italians simply call porcini is out there on the East Slope of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada right now.

I love hunting for spring kings and I love eating them. In Washington these mushrooms seem to be most prevalent around true firs, although experience shows that certain hardwoods can be important too. They start popping as early as April in California and Oregon, but here in Washington I don't bother checking my patches until June, usually as the morel harvest is waning. Queen's cup lilies are a good indicator for timing.

Professional foragers grade their mushrooms for market. No. 3's are the big mature kings that can be spotted even from a speeding car. Also called "flags," they're often useful beacons for finding the more desirable no. 2's and no. 1's. The former have just emerged from the duff and are still firm, with convex caps and white pores underneath the cap; the latter are harder to see because they're still in the "button" phase underground, with caps that have just started to open. A trained eye can see the mounded duff that buttons push up, known as "mushrumps" to hungry mycophagists. Hunting for no. 1 buttons is good sport.

Here's a video that shows the habitat and the progression of looking for spring kings, from flag to button:

While I usually dry my excess boletes for later use in soups and stews, apparently you can freeze the buttons, so this year I've vacuum-sealed and frozen about 10 pounds of porcini buttons. I'll post the results after thawing and cooking the first batch later this summer when the flush is over.

In the meantime, I'll be eating fresh porcini with morning eggs, sauteed for lunch sandwiches, and prepared in all manner of ways for dinner, from pasta sauces to grilled to stewed. Their meatiness and nutty-woodsy flavor make porcini one of the great treats in all of fungaldom.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Camp Food

Been out hiking, camping, and enjoying the spring pageantry (ok, so it's officially summer now, but it's still spring in the mountains). Oh, and harvesting a bunch of 'shrooms. The morel flush continues at higher altitudes and the spring king boletes are coming on strong. Meaty mushrooms like morels and porcini make for good eats in camp, transforming a simple dish of rice, romano cheese, and cream into something a little more special.

I'll have more to say about finding spring porcini in my next post.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Schadenfreude: Hyperdictionary definition: [n] (German) delight in another person's misfortune.

Shadenfreude: FOTL definition: [n] (Piscatorial) delight in catching bucketloads of American shad, which could be viewed as the fish's misfortune.

This has become an annual trip for me in recent years. I blast down to Portland for a night of good grub, a dram of Beam, and a few hands of cribbage with my pal Bradley. In the morning we get up before dawn, pound a few mugs of coffee and a Viking-sized butterhorn and make tracks for the Columbia Gorge, where we get in line with several dozen other vehicles to wait for the 7 am starting gun, when they open the Bonneville Dam visitor's center to the public. It's key that we be one of the first cars in line, because inevitably we're the only anglers fly-fishing and we need to establish a proper DMZ for back-casting.

If there can be said to be any sort of silver lining at all to the decline of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia-Snake system, it is the shad. American shad (Alosa sapidissima, from the Saxon allis for European shad and the Latin sapidissima for most delicious), are the largest members of the herring family and native to the Atlantic. Pioneering aquaculturist Seth Green planted the first 10,000 shad in Pacific waters in 1871, introducing the survivors of a seven-day cross-country railroad journey into the Sacramento River. There is evidence that descendants of that original stock might have made it to the Columbia River as early as 1876, but the river was planted in 1885 for good measure.

Now there are millions of shad migrating up the Columbia every year, and without much of a commercial fishery it's a boom-time for recreational anglers. Most fishermen don't bother until fish counts over the dam hit 100,000 per day, but owing to a complicated set of schedules, Bradley and I would need to make our trip in advance of that magic number this year. As it turned out, we needn't have worried.

As Bradley says, fly-fishing for shad in water as big and boisterous as the Columbia is "about as much fun as you can have with a flyrod," at least on a sustained basis. Sure, there's nothing quite like a hot steelhead ripping line off your reel (or hooking into a marlin, I suppose, if you're into 14-weight rods), but in terms of action, it really doesn't get much better than shad. And in my experience, fly-fishing is far and away the best way to catch a ton of shad, much more so than conventional tackle (although I'm told there's a hand-lining method that absolutely slays 'em).

There's something about the dead-drifted fly that turns the shad on, so right off the bat you're playing to the flyrod's strength. The take is usually near the end of the drift, which means you're fighting a three-pound fish downstream in the current of huge water. Double barbed hooks come in handy. As do heavy sinktip lines. I use a soft six-weight rod, which means Bradley is always barking at me to bring in my fish, "enough diddling around already."

On this day we were joined by Bradley's brother, Frank. The action was fast and furious all morning as we jostled for position and razzed each other each time a fish got off. Shad have soft mouths and it's not uncommon to lose as many fish as you land. Still, by noon we had well over a hundred pounds of fish on the stringer, this despite most of the males being tossed back. After lunch Frank and Bradley set to the messy business of harvesting roe from the females. Parboiled for five minutes with a dash of vinegar, the sausage-like roe casings keep well in the freezer and can be fried up in butter to make a powerful fisherman's breakfast with eggs and spuds.

Minus the eight odd fish I took home to fillet and smoke, the rest of our fish are now at Tony's Smokehouse & Cannery in Oregon City, getting cleaned, smoked, and pressure-canned. Shad on a shingle, anyone?

Here's some vid action from the morning, which conveys the social nature of the shad experience. While so much fishing has become a game of devoting monk-like attention to ever-dwindling resources in the face of mounting competition, shad fishing is downright chatty. And with no limits, you can be picky with your catch, tossing back the small males, for instance, despite Frank's objections...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Professional

My head is still reeling. I got to hang out with a professional forager on Monday. Unfortunately, I can't divulge much more than that right now, but I'll say this: my own knowledge could fit in with the dirt and duff under his left pinky nail.

Making your living as a forager is unbelievably hard work. Most professionals—and I use the term loosely—are recent immigrants, legal and otherwise, who are willing to do this seasonal, mercurial, back-breaking work for wages that average out, in most cases, to the minimum. Then there are those who either shun society or want to work in the woods. A very small percentage are making it their daily career and being well compensated. This forager was in the latter category.

Together we scouted some of his spring porcini patches in a casual, day-off sort of way, filling a couple buckets just the same with no. 1 buttons and a bunch of coral to boot. That's about all I can say for now. I'm writing a piece on our day together and will supply more details at a later date.

Pasta with Porcini in Sage Butter

When I got home I took one of my porcini and chopped it up and sauteed it for a few minutes in sage butter (a couple tbsp of hot melted butter that is just starting to brown, with crispy fried sage leaves), then poured over penne. Garnished with chopped parsley and grated parm. Simple and delicious. Don't be surprised, though, if your spring porcini is milder than the fall variety.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Little Pigs

This forager had the good fortune of spending Saturday combing the hills of Eastern Washington for wild edibles with Seattle chef and cookbook author Becky Selengut (Washington Local and Seasonal Cookbook) and go go green gardener Amy Pennington. Both proved quick studies on the fungi trail—and highly entertaining sidekicks to boot.

After loading up on jerky and pepperoni at Owen's Meats in Cle Elum, we made for the mountains. The first stop of the day was a thigh-burner wake-up call (make that a triple grande no foam) that produced a patch of thirty or so morels in an area smaller than a pool table. This was an area I had explored last week, and except for this one score it was pretty much tapped out by now.

We admired the view at the top:

Another spot yielded nice freshies, but they required a fair amount of work, with a lot of bushwhacking in between each find.

Morels continue to elude me in a more scientific sense. The singletons seem to occupy shadowy haunts—in darker woods or along riverbottoms. Sometimes they can be quite big owing to the moister conditions of their habitat in these places. They're apparently mychorrizal with both cottonwoods and various species of fir. The clusters, however, seem to need more disturbance—areas that have been logged or burned or otherwise altered. This habitat tends to be more open conifer woods, with dappled light and drier conditions. Sometimes you'll find scores of morels in a tiny area in these places. Are they a different species? Superficially, it would appear not.

After spending the better part of the day hunting morels, I suggested we take a stab at finding some early spring king boletes—what Italians lovingly call porcini, or "little pigs." Normally my porcini patches would be in full bloom right now, but this spring has been anything but normal. With morels about three weeks behind schedule, I figured the boletes would be late, too.

To get to the patch we had to ford raging rivers and endure a scary moment of self-inflicted 'shroom knifewounds. Portents were not good. The ground had a matted look to it, indicating the snow had just melted out recently. Queen's cup lilies weren't even budding yet, and many of the trilliums were still white. Yellow violets bloomed in dense thickets along damp creek bottoms, some of which we took for salad.

At the base of a big fir tree something caught Becky's eye. In the next moment the three of us were all kneeling around the trunk. We madly scraped away the duff to reveal first one, then three perfect porcini. Each cap was six or seven inches across and firm. These king boletes had just pushed their royal heads through the surface. Huzzah!

After the hoots and high-fives and endzone celebration we sliced one in half to check for worms. The inside was pure white and pristine. This was the capper on a great day. Going home with a bag full of morels was sweet; going home with porcini was something altogether different.

I was exhausted after the long day in the woods, but there was no way I was going to bed without tasting the first porcini of the year. I cut it into 1/4-inch slices, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, seasoned, and added chopped garlic, then grilled until very lightly browned.

I've been known to suffer from hyperbole, but I can safely say this was the best porcini ever. At least from my kitchen. The outside was grilled to perfection with tons of flavor while the inside was succulent, almost like a pan-seared scallop. I was rendered nearly helpless after a single bite. That's what the first porcino of the season will do to you.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sammich Throwdown

Here at FOTL, we like a good sammich. Seattle, however, is not exactly sammich nirvana. Yes, we have Salumi in town, and a new stall in the Pike Place Market called I Love New York Deli which does a pretty good job (I had their brisket on rye with caramelized onions and horseradish sauce the other day), but mostly it's thin pickins'. Let's face it, if you want a choice of good sammiches you go to the Tri-State Area.

Or you learn to make your own.

It's not hard. And it doesn't need to be time-consuming. This is what leftovers are for. 'Course it helps to have proper ingredients on hand.

Today I opened the fridge to find: One grilled breast of chicken. Check. A tub of morel cream sauce from last night's veal chop dinner. Check. Potato salad. Check. Dill pickles. Check.

A handful of arugula from the garden sealed the deal. The chicken I sliced and smothered with the morel cream sauce, then zapped in the microwave. Two thick slices of organic country white got lightly toasted and smeared with mayo. Arugula on bread, meat and 'shrooms on arugula, close the door. Not much more effort than making a PB&J.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Good Week for the Wetsuit

While the East Coast may be sweating out its first heat wave of the year, here in Seattle the weather's been unseasonably miserable: sideways rain and bone-chilling cold. I've been down in the basement performing unspeakable rites, putting in calls to Nawlins voodoo shops, even screaming "Uncle!" at the top of my lungs. The cold rain and snow just keeps a-coming. So, if you can't beat 'em...

I put on the wetsuit the other day and went free-diving with my half-fish friend David Francis. Dave gets in a minimum of 100 dives a year. Long ago I stopped worrying about staying submerged even half as long, or seeing the things he sees underwater. I just like getting wet, working muscles that don't normally see a lot of action, and checking out the marine environment. There's food to be had, too.

Dave calls it human-powered hunting. We don't carry fancy spearguns; the Hawaiian sling is our tool of choice (although according to Wikipedia, what we've always referred to as a sling is more properly known as a polespear).

When I first started free-diving 15 years ago, there were abundant populations of rockfish and lingcod—or at least they seemed abundant to me—all along the jetties up and down Pugetopolis. Rockfish are slow-growing and often don't reproduce until several years old (and older), but the lings were considered fair game in limited numbers. Back then it seemed like we were the only ones targeting lings. Lately with salmon runs so depressed, more and more anglers are turning to bottomfish. We see them anchored off jetties that boats used to ignore on their way out to the deeper trolling waters. And now we see fewer and fewer lings. Each spring I wonder if this will be my last backyard ling hunt...and don't get me started on the chemical contaminants cropping up in these urban in-shore fish.

That said, we saw a few lings... If you want to read more about my adventures free-diving in pursuit of this toothy—and toothsome—delicacy, check back soon and I'll have details about a forthcoming magazine piece.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Cream of Frankenmorel Canapes

It was a dark and stormy night... Tuesday, that is ... and Wednesday I stumbled upon this rain-spattered horror show: Frankenmorel! Not to mention the Bride of Frankenmorel. And Son of Frankenmorel—even Young Frankenmorel. The whole mutant family of Frankenmorels was rampaging across a hillside of Abies grandis.

Fatty morels like this one at left are fun to find—they're just so over the top and self-important. "Look at me!" they beg. "Pick me!!" (The Hillary Clintons of the mushroom world?) This one was several inches tall and, as you can see, nearly as wide. It practically weighed a pound by itself, and though I did harvest it, you can see from the picture that the stem is dark, indicating a waterlogged morel. Your only recourse is to eat such specimens immediately.

A good method is the dry saute: get a cast-iron skillet blazing hot, then toss in your soggy mushrooms (chopping them first) without any oil or butter and start stirring frantically. The mushrooms will expel their water without becoming too slimy. Then you can do what you want with them. In this case, I added them to diced sweet onions sauteed in butter, cooked a little longer, seasoned, and stirred in heavy cream and a splash of sherry for a delicious Cream of Frankenmorel Canape.

Here's a video taken from the Frankenmorel patch:

After marveling at these mutants for a while, I skedaddled to higher ground in hopes of locating fresher specimens. A coralroot orchid told me I was heading in the right direction. After climbing another 500 feet in elevation through an area of selective timber harvest and ORV abuse, I found a patch of prime morels, about thirty in all, clustered in an area no more than 20 x 20 feet. Score!

It's amazing what a difference a little elevation can mean when you're hunting morels. The key—and I feel like I'm just starting to learn this—is in understanding the micro-habitats. I just knew I was going to find morels in this spot. The tree composition was right; the amount of filtered, dappled light was right; the duff looked good, as did the slope aspect, with its steep pitches alternating with flat benches. The kicker was the logging activity. I'm not sure what happened here exactly. The area might have been thinned, and slash piles burned. Evidence of spot-fires was all around. In the West, morels thrive on just this sort of disturbance.

Unlike the Frankenmorels, these were firm and just pushing through the duff. Here's a short video of what a patch of Washington's Cascade Mountain blacks looks like:

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Dandelions of the Sea

My crazy friend Jani left a harangue on the answering machine recently that I didn't answer because we were busy camping in the high, wind-blown desert, where my boy actually ate something green—miner's lettuce—that he found down in a moist canyon seep.

So I get a call the other day. "Dude, whaddaya think of my idea?"

"What idea, Jani?"

"You didn't listen to my message."

"Marty heard it. She said it was unintelligible."



"I can't believe you're blowing me off." Then he went on a long rant about a book review in the recent New Yorker (and I'm way behind in my New Yorkers; in fact, the New Yorker has mostly been boring the hell out of me for the last year). The upshot is that it takes a pound of fishmeal or more to produce a pound of farmed Atlantic salmon—no surprise there—and why don't people eat the fishmeal instead, which happens to be herring.

"So you plan to go fishing for herring, is that it?"

"Dude! The dandelions of the sea."

"I'm in." (After all, I now have a reputation as a Fearless Dandelion Hunter to uphold.)

We'll see where this leads. Jani's preferred fishing vessel is a sea kayak. If I'm not mistaken, we'll need a long line of little baited hooks and a fishfinder (or maybe just a gullfinder) to locate the herring ball, which could get hectic in kayaks. In the meantime, I'll be fishing for an anadromous type of herring in a couple weeks, the American shad. Stay tuned.

(photo by Bruce)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Peppered Beef Medallions with Red Wine Morel Sauce

Heaping sauteed morels on steak is kind of like drizzling cream over Ben & Jerry's. But there's a great tradition of this sort of double-whammy excessiveness. Think of chops stuffed with pate.

The mushrooms came from a Sunday venture to the Eastern Cascades with a few friends. You want to carpool in these days of $4 gas, because you never know whether the wily fungi will be showing themselves. They're known to play hide-n-seek like mischievous gnomes. I'd estimate my final take paid for my share of the gas and maybe a wee bit more. Which is to say I did okay—enough for a good meal—but nothing to brag about.

The morels are about three weeks late in our region. We focused on the 3,000-foot level, which normally produces by the first week in May, and though we didn't pull out basketfuls, the morels we found were all firm and thick-walled. A stump produced a ring of a dozen or so; the others were onesies and twosies, mostly onesies. The last—and best—morel of the day I spied at 20 mph from the back seat as Lori sped down a logging road.

Peppered Beef Medallions with Red Wine Morel Sauce for Two

I found this recipe on the Food Network while searching for morel-wine reduction sauces. It's simple and intuitive, but my suggestion (reflected in the steps below) is to increase the amounts of cabernet and veal stock; morels like to drink. Fresh wild mushrooms in general are like perfect little sponges: they seem to possess a limitless capacity to soak up whatever liquid you throw at them. Of course, this makes for very tasty mushrooms, but if you're like me, you want to have some sauce to pour over the steak. I underestimated this time around and was left with mostly super-succulent morels and not a lot of gravy.

Halve a pound of morels and saute in olive oil for several minutes until cooked through, then add two tbsp minced garlic. When garlic is golden, deglaze with a cup of red wine; reduce by three-quarters. Add a cup of veal stock and reduce by half. While the sauce is simmering stir in a tbsp of fresh chopped thyme and season to taste. Just before you're ready to serve, melt in two tbsp butter, which will give body to your sauce and make the whole shebang glisten in an attractive way. Serve over a generously peppered medallion or tenderloin of beef, with creamy mashed potatoes and a hearty red.

Make this meal once the children are sound asleep. My three-year-old daughter was still awake and she settled in next to me like a pet dog, flashing her soulful brown eyes and begging for bite after bite.

Monday, June 2, 2008

I Forgot My Truffle Pig...

...otherwise I'm sure that Oregon spring white truffles would be filling my home with their pungent aroma right now, a scent known to drive certain epicures into mad ecstacy.

On Saturday I attended my first North American Truffling Society (NATS) foray, down in the sleepy Columbia Gorge hamlet of Washougal, WA. Our leader was Frank Evans, who, along with the dynamic father-son truffle duo of Jim and Matt Trappe, is a co-author of the Field Guide to North American Truffles.

After finally finding a black truffle this winter, albeit one that was long in the tooth and not suitable for cooking with, I was looking forward to stocking the larder with some white truffles (Tuber gibbosum), which have a distinctly different flavor and scent from the blacks (Leucangium carthusianum), more garlicky and less fruity.

The best truffling is in tree farm habitat: second-growth (or third, fourth, fifth...) Douglas-fir plantations of 10- to 30-year-old trees that are intensively managed, with tight crops, closed canopies, and a soft duff composition that is inviting to the voles and other little burrowing mammals that feed on the truffles and help disperse their spores. You find the truffles by raking the duff and soil around the trees with a four-tined, long-handled garden cultivator. If you uncover a vole hole, it's recommended to follow the tunnel in case the vole has stashed a truffle in a chamber below (that's how I found my black truffles this winter).

One of our little troupe brought along a handful of white truffles he had found near the Clackamas River (pictured above), and though somewhat critter-gnawed, they exuded the signature maddening scent and had us all pumped up to find more.

Alas, as it turned out, our foray was not quite in the right habitat. Though the property had been previously utilized for timber harvest, it wasn't currently managed that way, and its standing conifers were mostly older and on very steep slopes with a dense underbrush of ferns, briars, and other tangled growth that impeded digging. Just the same, it was a beautiful piece of property and made for a pleasant half-day of tramping around, checking out wildflowers like this Oregon iris (Iris tenax), and talking truffles. Mr. Evans was a fount of information on the elusive tuber.

And we didn't get completely skunked. In addition to a couple inedible species known as "pogies," we found one tiny, under-ripe Oregon spring white truffle. Yahoo!