Thursday, July 31, 2008

Now that's antipasti!

In the continuing saga of the Great Frozen Porcini Investigation, FOTL took a new tack yesterday and eschewed defrosting altogether. Instead, the prime porcini buttons were exhumed from their chilly hibernation and cast directly into a red-hot skillet in the oven. Talk about going from the ice tray to the toaster.

With a little olive oil to smooth the transition, the porcini baked for 15 minutes by themselves at 400 degrees before the rest of the ingredients joined the party: our first zucchini from the garden, red pepper, and garlic. This colorful assortment roasted in their juices together for another 15 minutes before being turned and showered with fresh thyme and seasoned with salt and pepper. Another fifteen minutes and it was ready: homemade antipasti to go with the wild boar sausage I'd picked up earlier in the day at our local Italian deli.

In all truth, it would take an expert porcini palate to discern these beauties as previously frozen. Tender but not without resiliency, they evinced little of the water-logged sliminess that is characteristic of a defrosted mushroom, and the taste was mildly nutty as one would expect. While my first experiment was not exactly a mandate for freezing porcini buttons, in the future I will definitely assign a few batches of buttons to the cooler if only to have fresh-tasting roasted porcini all year long.

Stay tuned for another experiment soon.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Fettucini with Porcini, Garlic & Parmesan

I defrosted my first batch of frozen porcini today. As regular readers will recall, just before leaving town for a summer retreat in the Rockies, FOTL took in a haul of fresh spring porcini from the North Cascades, most of it consisting of prime buttons just emerging from the duff. In the past I've dried all my excess porcini, but this time I vacuum-sealed and froze the best specimens.

Well, the jury is still mostly out on the freezer technique, but this is what I've learned so far. Thawed porcini is nothing like fresh. (No kidding!) I left the mushrooms on paper towels at room temperature. In the picture at left you can see hints of frost on them and even the textured impression of the bag. Almost immediately the porcini started sweating, getting progressively slimier. My hopes were not high. (Next time I might leave them in their sealed bag and defrost overnight in the fridge.)

Despite the puddles of water forming around my precious porcini, they succumbed to the knife rather nicely (though not as crisply as fresh) and the interiors were still happily white for the most part. When it came time to cook the porcini, I decided to raise the heat and saute them longer than I would have otherwise, just to make sure excesss moisture was cooked out and the mushrooms got a crisp edge. This raised a few problems that required kitchen improvisation. The high stove temp meant I needed to de-glaze, so I added a quick pour of vermouth (white wine would have been a better choice); lacking a lemon, I squeezed in some lime for a kick of citrus (again, not optimum). A pat of butter near the end added more opportunity for de-glazing. At this point I added the fettucini to the pan and cut the heat.

The verdict on the first phase of the Great Frozen Porcini Test? Extra cooking helped render the previously frozen porcini into a state that—if not as flavorful—at least superficially resembled the outcome of cooked fresh. Also, because spring porcini is milder than other variants later in the season, I might choose the fall fungi in the future for this subtle dish.

1/8 cup olive oil
2 cups diced porcini
1 tbsp chopped garlic
1 tbsp butter
9 oz fresh fettucini
1/4 cup grated parmesan
sprig of fresh thyme, chopped
lemon zest
salt & pepper to taste

Saute porcini in oil until lightly browned; meanwhile add pasta to pot of boiling water. Add garlic to mushrooms and cook another minute or two. De-glaze with white wine or vermouth. Melt in butter, then stir in cooked pasta along with grated parmesan, lemon zest, and spices. Serves 2.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


In recent weeks there has been a trio of developments in the West that should excite hunters and nature buffs, all involving wolves. For the first time in several decades, wolf packs have been confirmed in both Washington and Oregon, and a federal judge has ruled to temporarily place wolves back on the Endangered Species list, effectively scuttling the wanton killing in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana following de-listing earlier this year.

Why should hunters be excited? This is certainly an emotional issue, but in FOTL's opinion, any real hunter would want to practice his age-old craft in an environment that hasn't been debased by the elimination of top predators. Any real hunter would be in tune enough with his environment to see the benefit of returning wolves to their rightful place. Any real hunter wouldn't believe for a moment the red herring arguments about wolves devastating elk populations.

Just look at Yellowstone NP. With the return of the wolf, elk are no longer lounging around in the willow beds like tenured tourist attractions, munching their way through the web of life. Elk are once again on the move as wolf packs pick off the sick and the old. Now the willows are back—and so are trout populations that depend on willow cover for shade; so are willow flycatchers and all sorts of other songbirds and small mammals; so are the raptors that feed on the small birds and mammals. Meanwhile the leftover wolf kills feed grizzly bears, eagles, ravens, and host of other scavengers.

In biological terms, this is called the trophic cascade. When you remove top predators from an ecosystem, all sorts of ecological mayhem ensues, with unintended consequences right down to the level of single-celled organisms. The result is an impoverished landscape.

Yes, resurgent wolves will occasionally take livestock—but there are costs associated with living in harmony with the natural world and its critters. The costs of living with wolves will be a pittance compared to the costs racked up by climate change. The sooner we learn how to live responsibly, the better. It's a simple question of ethics, really.

I'd like to hear from my hunting readership on this issue. My guess is that most hunters who read FOTL would be thrilled to hear a wolf howl in the wilderness—but maybe not. As a forager, I spend a lot of time in our wild places. Those places will feel a little wilder with wolves in the mix.

(photo by ucumari)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

All Hail the Lunch Brookie

If there was a fish designed...oops, bad word choice...that evolved just for kids to catch, it's the brook trout. A member of Salmonidae, or salmon family, the brookie isn't really a trout; this native of the Eastern U.S. is a char and is distinguished from a trout by its dark coloring and lighter-colored spots (trout, on the other hand, have darker spots on light bodies, among other things).

More important for our purposes, brookies are admired by anglers (and sometimes smack-talked) for their gullibility. Their willingness to take a fly or lure in almost any situation makes them ideal for the family camping trip. And if that's not enough, most anglers would agree the brookie, with its naturally pink-hued flesh, is the tastiest of our "trout."

On this occasion the brookie in question was a particularly welcome sight after Riley lost his favorite lure to a huge rainbow the evening before, in an oft-revisited turn of events in which it was roundly concluded by family consensus (with only a single abstention) that FOTL was ultimately at fault for not properly setting the drag on the venerable Scooby-Doo rod and then offering unsolicited advice to horse the hog right up on the dock. FOTL will refrain from comment.

The next morning, operating under the theory that our lure-stealing fish had retreated to the opposite shore to sulk, we tried the far end of the pond, a mosquito-infested corner with tall reeds known as the "Back Bay." First cast—fish on!

No, it wasn't the trophy with a gleaming lure dangling from its lip, but a fine lunch this brookie, taping out at 13 inches, did make.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Rocky Mt. Forage

FOTL is still on sabbatical in the Colorado Rockies. While the emphasis has been on R&R, a few local forage treats have been duly noted.

We're still early for the great fruiting of king boletes that graces these mountains in summer, but Ruby found an aspen bolete on one of her flower walks with Mom. These members of the Leccinum genus (known for their scabrous stems) are myccorhizal with—you guessed it—aspen, which we have in good quantities around here. Though traditionally considered fairly choice, there are recent records in Colorado of gastric distress and hospital visits associated with these boletes, and given our remote locale we opted to admire it with eyes only.

As for the plant kingdom, we're overrun by carrot family umbels (Apiaceae). The family known for striking aromatics such as parsley, fennel, celery, dill, cumin, and so on is a forager's dream and nightmare—dream for flavor, nightmare for identification. As with certain mushrooms, a nibble on the wrong carrot can be fatal. Just ask Socrates. Poison hemlock is in the carrot family, as is water hemlock. Even choice edibles like cow parsnip come with strings attached, with the particular string in this case being a phototoxin that reacts in ultraviolet light and can cause burning rashes if its juice contacts skin in sunlight.

Speaking of cow parsnip, damp meadows and creek banks are loaded with Heracleum maximum right now. When sliced off below the bulb and peeled, the stem makes an unusual addition to salads and stir-fries, with a complex, almost sweet flavor and a celery-like crunch. As pointed out in an earlier video post, cow parsnip is not for everyone.

A hike along Silver Creek revealed meadows blooming with another umbel, what we think is wild caraway (Carum carvi), or a close relative. In general it's a good idea to avoid any member of the carrot family unless you're absolutely sure of the identity, but in this case we were able to rule out the real baddies and felt confident enough to try a taste. The umbels were already fruiting in sunnier spots, and we picked the seed-like fruits and chewed them along the trail. The flavor of licorice was distinctive.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) has just started to bloom at our elevation in the past week. Yarrow has been used for centuries to make medicinal teas for various ailments, including colds and flues.

Of course, if it's protein you're after, the Rockies offer superb big-game hunting in fall and more storied trout streams than an angler can hope to shake a rod at in a lifetime. In the next installment before our return to the PNW, I'll have footage of local brookie action.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Foraging Star Is Born

Remember this name: Sunny Savage. Hard to forget, huh...

Sunny has been sending dispatches from the road to FOTL as she criss-crosses the country in search of delicious wild edibles and the folks who have the knowledge to forage and cook them. Today she's in Nebraska scouting out common milkweed, lambsquarters, prairie turnips, and wild plums.

Sunny is a wild food expert who operates the Wild Food Plants web site, but she's about to make the jump to TVLand with her own cable show. She's been traveling coast to coast, meeting up with some well-known foragers and filming episodes for her new show with a crew that includes a director, two camera people, lights and sound men, and, of course, a grip. She says she's "been blessed with a great team who are exceptional at what they do and patient with being in bug-infested and poison ivy-laden locales." Her recent adventures have included stops in the food mecca New Orleans, an educational romp through New York City's surprisingly bountiful Central Park with "Wildman" Steve Brill, and an Appalachian retreat with Doug Elliott and Frank Cook.

Each episode features Sunny in a new location, where she identifies, harvests, and cooks local plants and fungi. Of course, Mother Nature has her own opinions about what makes good footage: Sunny has had close encounters with 'gators, plenty of "spring showers with the spring greens," and uncooperative campfires that made cooking her catch on film nearly impossible.

One of Sunny's great assets, though, is her optimism (one might even call it her sunny disposition). "It's been such a treat to connect with folks from around the nation," she says. "I'm getting to meet all sorts of wild food folks, along with others, who are connected deeply with the earth." And in this time of rancorous politics and public debate, Sunny still sees the potential of the U.S. being a leader in raising consciousness about health, nutrition, and local food. Says Sunny: "I'm learning to love America again. I am deeply patriotic, which is why I feel so disappointed with our politics and international persona at times. I know we can be better. We still have a lot to be proud of...and we still have a hell of a lot of abundance. There are wild foods everywhere just waiting for us to recognize and use them."

Amen to that!

Hot on the Trail with Sunny Savage will debut later this year, with weekly half-hour episodes on Veria, a channel dedicated to living naturally, airing on DISH 9575. We'll announce the official premier when the date is firm.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Dept. of Shameless Self-Promotion

Check out the July issue of Seattle Metropolitan magazine. The SeaTown Diary column was penned by yours truly, a personal account of the joys of free-diving in pursuit of the toothy—and toothsome—Pacific lingcod.

P.S. As an added enticement, there may be a really embarrassing photo accompanying the article or contributor's notes...I don't know for sure, since I'm still in the Rockies and haven't seen the issue yet, but the managing editor demanded all photographic evidence be handed over for possible inclusion.

Update: Phew! No partially-clad he-man photo avec spear to haunt me to my grave...

Friday, July 4, 2008

Warpo and the Hatch

Hardcore flyfishers know about a bug that emerges briefly in late spring, usually when brawling western rivers are running full tilt with runoff. This three-inch bug hatches in prodigious numbers, swarms of them crawling over bankside vegetation, falling in the water, flying hither and thither in their drunken helicopter pilot way—driving both the fish and those who stalk the fish crazy with a quivering, unhinged desire. This bug is called the salmonfly (Pteronarcys californica); it's a giant stonefly with a salmon-colored underside, and it's a scrumptious meal for a trout.

Salmonfly hatches come off on some pretty good rivers: Rock Creek in Montana, the Deschutes in Oregon, and elsewhere. Problem is, oftentimes the rivers are too blown out to fish when the hatch is on. Anglers with time or money (or usually both) might spend years trying to catch a salmonfly hatch at its peak. When conditions are just right—river in fishable condition, flies in big numbers, fish looking up—you need to drop everything and get yer ass on the water. The hatch might be over a day later—moved upriver to private waters, or just gone, poof!

When my friend Warpo and I planned our excursion into Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison months ago, we weren't thinking about the salmonfly hatch. Because of tricky scheduling, we would be going in early July, a couple weeks after the hatch in normal years. But this hasn't been a normal year, and lingering snowpack in the Rockies has delayed all sorts of signs of the season, including wildflower blooms, bird nesting, and...The Hatch.

The night before leaving for the canyon, we watched a documentary to prime the pump. Twice. The boys over at Felt Soul Media put together a 17-minute award-winning film that captures the beauty of the rugged canyon and the madness of the angling action during the salmonfly emergence. (You can watch it on their web site.) It didn't make them many friends in some quarters, notably among the locals who were keeping this fishery close to the vest for years. But as with so many priceless natural resources, if folks don't know, it might just be the developers, miners, timber barons, water hogs, and other exploiters. In this case, the threat is from Front Range water users like Denver, always on the lookout for more agua to sprinkle on Kentucky Bluegrass yards in desert suburbia. (It should also be noted that Felt Soul is doing yeoman's work to expose the greed and fraud of the proposed Pebble Mine in the headwaters of Alaska's most cherished fishery, Bristol Bay, with their latest film, "Red Gold.")

The skyrocketing popularity of fly-fishing in the last 20 years and the concurrent pressure on fisheries has resulted in an increasingly technical (some might say fussy) approach to the sport, with ever tinier flies and leaders and warier fish. The salmonfly hatch, on the other hand, is a refreshing trip in the Wayback Machine: big flies, big fish, big scenery. The only indicators of the 21st century are the hordes of absurdly geared-out anglers.

While I'm at it, taking a few shots at modern flyfishing, let me say a few words about the modern "angler" who would never deign to kill a fish. Weak sauce. That's all I'll say. If you're willing to hook fish after fish in the mouth and play them till near exhaustion, you should have the nuts to give at least one a rock shampoo—where legal, of course, and within the limits of a practical conservation ethic—and eat it for dinner. All else is hypocrisy. Warpo and I were looking forward to a trout dinner in the backcountry. When we reached the bottom of the canyon, we were hot, sweaty, and hungry. Warpo's had a tapeworm for as long as I've known him. I told him the fishing might take his mind off his stomach, that we would be eating large that night if successful.

How was the fishin'? Well, friends, let me tell you. The scene did not disappoint. Clouds of salmonflies filled the air. They were everywhere. You couldn't walk the banks without getting them on you. They crawled up your legs and even into your shorts. Every now and again you'd see some fisherman with a big grin on his face doing a little jig on the rocks, trying to dislodge a few misguided salmonflies from the family jewels. And the fishing was off the hook. The first day we fished 12 hours straight—all on top—without a break. Huge trout crashed our flies with ceaseless abandon.

Toward the end of the day I started thinking about dinner. Whirling disease has taken a toll on the Gunnison's rainbows, but browns are open to harvest. The rules require a brown to be at least 16 inches, so I whacked this one above. He was big enough to fillet, and despite the limited scope of a Leatherman knife, the fillets turned out pretty decent. We had a Ziplock ready with a mixture of breadcrumbs, flour, oregano, Old Bay, and a few other spices lifted from the cabinet before dawn. A little olive oil in the pan and these babies were sizzling as darkness enveloped the canyon.

Warpo has rekindled his childhood interest in flyfishing only in recent years. We've made a few trips together, but he had yet to catch a really big fish, a true hawg. Last year he lost one during a moment of bad decision-making on the part of his net-man. The lost fish stayed with him, haunting his dreams. After our first day of the hatch, he could point to numbers of large fish caught to ease the pain, but not a bragging-rights monster...

Until a few minutes before our departure the next day, when he perfected his "wall artistry," hooking this brute against a sheer slab of impassable rock at the full extent of his casting abilities. (For perspective, Warpo is a tall fella, with knobby, oversized carpenter's hands.) The big 'bow was released to eat more salmonflies and tempt the next lucky angler who braves the depths of the Black Canyon.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Prince of Summer

For me, the beginning of summer is marked by the emergence of Agaricus augustus, the Prince mushroom, which I generally start finding at the end of June. The Prince's domain extends over cities, suburbs, and rural roadsides. It's fond of parks and gardens. I found this specimen beside an old logging track, where it was growing alone. Sometimes they fruit in clumps, and they can be quite large, with caps the size of dinner plates, which means a single Prince can make a meal.

A distinguishing feature of the Prince is its unusually strong scent: the almondy smell of anise. Personally, I find this aroma to be overpowering at times, so I make sure not to cook the Prince in a savory recipe that will clash with the sweet, anise-like flavor. I found this out the hard way, once stuffing ginormous Prince caps with Italian sausage, breadcrumbs, sage, parsley, and egg; what should have been a stellar meal was compromised by the too-sweet flavor of the mushrooms. A red sauce over pasta is a better use of the Prince, with the chopped mushrooms obviating any need for a pinch of sugar.