Monday, September 29, 2008

Fungus Among Us

Fall mushroom season is in full swing in FOTL's stomping grounds, which explains my absence of late. Been on a 'shroom odyssey and will be reporting my finds in the coming days, along with a bunch of recipes to get you out in the woods—unless you want to pay market prices...a tough bet in this economy.

Speaking of wild mushrooms, you can read my article on porcini in the current issue of Seattle Metropolitan magazine.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Crustaceans of the Land

On Orcas Island this past weekend for a father-son campout, we played the traditional "Life and Death in the Woods." My boy lives for this game. It's carnivores vs. omnivores vs. herbivores, and you can bet that most of the kids wanted to be either meat-eaters or generalists; all the dads were left with the green flags that marked them as humble plant-eaters. Or, as it turned out, fungivores. Painting the forest floor with fluorescent flashes of orange and red were lobster mushrooms, dozens of of them just emerging from the duff. While the kids ran around devouring their parents, I slipped out of bounds to pick several pounds of the lobsters.

The lobster mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum) is actually a combination of two fungi, with one parasitizing the other. The host mushroom is usually of the Russula or Lactarius genera. In the PNW, a favorite host is the short-stemmed russula (Russula brevipes), a normally unappetizing and rather unexceptional 'shroom. When parasitized by the lobster, however, it becomes the stuff of culinary dreams: a day-glo orange or red (or even purple) delight of fungiphiles, with firm white flesh and a slightly marine scent and taste. The lobster attacks while the host is still developing underground, sometimes twisting it into tortured shapes and covering the gills until they are nearly undefined, as you can see in the image above.

There are a couple of potential downsides to lobsters. First, depending on where they're fruiting, they usually require lots of cleaning. The rough, parasitized surface collects duff and dirt like a magnet, and the strange shapes can sometimes trap soil deep in contorted clefts and cavities. Second, bugs like the mushrooms as much as we do. Slice open a lobster and you might be confronted with a maggot-riddled interior. Luckily, mine were almost entirely bug-free.

I like making the classic French dish duxelles with lobsters. The contrast of the outer orange and inner white looks almost like lump crab meat, and the taste of the lobsters is perfect for this dish. Duxelles was reputedly created by famous French chef François Pierre La Varenne (1615–1678), author of Le cuisinier françois and one of the first to codify French cuisine, in honor of his boss, Nicolas Chalon du Blé, marquis d'Uxelles.


1 lb lobster mushrooms, cleaned and finely diced
1-2 shallots, finely diced
1/2 cup or more heavy cream
parsley, chopped
fresh herbs, chopped
salt and pepper

Saute diced shallot in butter until translucent. Add lobsters and cook on medium-high until the mushrooms have expelled all their water, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Deglaze with a splash of cognac. Slowly stir in cream along with whatever herbs you like and simmer until desired thickness. Garnish with chopped parsley.

Serve duxelles over thinly sliced baguette or mash into a paste for Beef Wellington and other recipes.

Duxelles Sauce

The above recipe can also be modified to serve over meat dishes. Simply add chicken or beef stock and more cream to make saucier.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Huckleberry Jelly

It was supposed to be a jam, but I skimped on the pectin and my parsimoniousness was rewarded with a slightly thinner batch with bounce to it. No matter. The huckleberry flavor is outstanding. Next time I might try adding some lemon rind.

4 cups berries
3 cups sugar
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 package of pectin (whole for jam)
1/2 tsp butter

Mash the berries by the cupful into a sauce pan. Stir in lemon juice and pectin and bring to a boil. Stir in sugar and butter and bring to a boil once more, stirring constantly. Boil for a full minute, then ladle into sterilized jars. Place lidded jars in a boiling water bath for at least five minutes. Yields 5 half-pints of jelly.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Huckleberry Hour

While scouting mushrooms in the mountains yesterday, I was reminded of a comment from a professional forager I interviewed this spring. "I always pay for my gas," he said, the point being that foraging is a multi-disciplinary avocation and a good forager is knowledgeable on a wide variety of wild edibles—or, to traffic in cliche, when the gods give you lemons, make lemonade.

The mushroom hunting was certainly a lemon yesterday. After such a good start with all that rain in August, September has been bone-dry. My chanterelle patch is a withered husk of its former self. We need rain badly. Yes, I'm sure there are mushroomers who are finding goodies in wetter micro-climates. That's why I went for elevation yesterday—I figured there might be a little extra precip up there, at least some drip lines from early morning mist.

Not likely. The roads are dusty and the duff is crunchy. Here and there I found the desiccated remains of old fruiting bodies, but otherwise the ground was bare. This was terra incognita for me, mostly a scouting run. I was on the Pacific Crest Trail and saw a total of four other hikers. Crossed paths with two backpackers and asked them how many nights. They looked a little embarrassed. "Five months," one of them finally answered. Right on! I plan to do the through-hike one of these years. Passed an elderly couple out for a stroll. We talked about the poor huckleberry crop this year. The man said it was 10 percent of normal. If that's true, expect to see newspaper stories about bears coming into town and raiding garbage cans. All around us the berry bushes were bare. Then, about two miles into my walk I started seeing them, big beautiful huckleberries like those we found in Indian Heaven earlier this summer.

Forget mushrooms; I screwed on my huckleberry snout.

Poor crop or not, it's prime time for mountain huckleberries in the Pacific Northwest. Get 'em while you can. I love how the sun-exposed bushes turn fire-engine red this time of year.

Tips for Huckleberrying

1. Scout first. Look for patches producing the biggest, sweetest fruit. This will make the picking faster and easier. During my hike I covered about 7 miles and noted all the good patches so I could hit them on my return, at which point I was able to concentrate on chest-high bushes with lots of fruit that didn't require any bending over. I saved my back the trouble and picked faster to boot.

2. Look for open slopes where fire or logging has removed much of the canopy. There is much debate among huckleberry hounds about the conditions that promote the best fruitings. Some evangelize full sun, while others pronounce the filtered light of open old-growth forests to be best. My own findings suggest that it isn't so much the amount of sun or shade but the make-up of the bush. Spindly bushes will often have huge, sweet berries, with all their energy put into the fruit rather than the growth of leaves and stems. Be your own judge.

3. Know your huckleberries. Two of the most common in my neck of the woods are the thin-leaf huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) and the oval-leaf huckleberry (Vaccinium ovalifolium), also known as the Alaskan blueberry. The former, with its large size and sweetness, is the most commonly harvested huckleberry in the PNW, while the latter is more sour and suitable for jams. Another less common species is the Cascade bilberry (Vaccinium deliciosum). There are more than a dozen species altogether in Washington and Oregon.

4. Two hands are better than one. Wear a jug around your neck. I didn't have one on this trip, thinking I was mushrooming, but I improvised a plastic grocery bag that had contained my lunch, stretching one of the handles until I could fit it over my head and around my neck.

5. Pay attention. Mr. Bear has a stake in the berry brakes too!

Huckleberry Sauce

This sauce is so easy it's criminal—and yet how nicely it tarts up (yeah, rockin' the double-entendres) a grilled fillet of fish or a cut of meat. Really, you can make it however you like, but here's what I did:

Simmered 4 cups of huckleberries with a cup of chicken stock, a cup of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of cider vinegar (several of the huckleberry sauces I checked online call for raspberry vinegar), then poured in a splash of tawny port a couple times, amounting in total to less than a half cup. I mashed half the berries and left the remainder whole. You might try crushed cloves, or white wine instead of port, or lemon zest, really whatever you want to jazz it up. A dab of butter to finish it gives the sauce a glisteny quality. I went for a fairly simple presentation and let the berries speak for themselves.

The sauce turned a fairly innocuous dish of grilled rockfish into something a little more special. The fish I rubbed with curry powder and a few other spices, then grilled. Topped with huckleberry sauce, the sparring between the curry and the berries made for, in Marty's words, an "awesome dinner!" Meanwhile, I've got a couple cups of sauce left in the freezer.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Great Frozen Porcini Test, Part 3

Friends, the verdict is in. But first some suspense. As you'll recall, in recent weeks I've been putting a batch of frozen spring porcini through the paces in an effort to understand: a.) whether there's a preferred way to defrost the porcini; b.) whether there's a preferred way to cook with thawed porcini; and c.) if it's worth freezing porcini in the first place.

My first attempt, Test 1, was to remove the frozen porcini from its vacuum-sealed bag and let it thaw for several hours on the kitchen counter. You can read the results here.

The second test was to cook with the frozen porcini right out of the freezer. Read the results here.

My final test was to keep the porcini in its vacuum-sealed bag overnight in the refrigerator. Mushrooms are basically sponges. They're mostly water, which is why you try to cook the water out even with fresh specimens. I'm not sure exactly why, but when frozen mushrooms thaw out, unlike meats, they lose a lot of their water in the process (probably because there's cellular damage from the freezing and the mushroom simply can't contain all its moisture in the aftermath).

After thawing for 24 hours, my porcini were swimming in a small pool of liquid at the bottom of the bag—but they were still firm. Yes, they were wet and slippery on the outside and you would never want to shave raw defrosted porcini over a salad the way you might with fresh, but they were also firm, like canned button mushrooms. I preferred the texture of the thawed porcini in Test 3 to Test 1; something about not exposing the defrosting mushrooms to air is a good thing.

I tried Test 3 on two occasions, making Stroganoff one night (pictured at left) and making Jane Grigson's Poultry Stewed with Ceps another night. Let me tell you, dear readers, the Grigson recipe is a keeper, and the frozen porcini, left to thaw overnight in the refrigerator in their vacuum-sealed bag, passed with flying colors.

Poultry Stewed with Ceps

1 chicken, cut into pieces (2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 legs)
seasoned flour for dredging
1/2 cup olive oil
4 tbsp butter
1/4 cup brandy
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large carrot, chopped
fresh herbs, chopped
2 cups stock (or less)
1 lb porcini (ceps), caps sliced, stalks chopped
parsley, chopped

Flour chicken and brown in half the oil and all the butter. Flame with brandy, turning chicken. Add the onion, garlic, and carrot and stir in pan juices. Lower heat and cook, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes. Add fresh herbs and 1 cup of stock. Cover partly. Meanwhile in a separate pan saute the porcini in remaining oil, then add to chicken. Pour in more stock if necessary. Serve over brown rice. Serves 4-6.

Whew! Now it's time to get into the woods and find some fresh porcini!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Salmonberry Jam

Lowland salmonberries may be long gone, but up in the mountains they're peaking right now. Last week I gathered a few cups above 3,500 feet—enough to make two half-pint jars of jam.

Though not as flavorful as some other Rubus berries such as thimbleberries, blackcap raspberries, and blackberries, salmonberries are gorgeous to look at. Ripened berries vary in color from bright orange to red to purple, sometimes on the same bush. Why this is so is a mystery to me.

I used this jam recipe, with the addition of pectin. Salmonberry jam takes more effort and patience than thimbleberry jam. Unlike thimbleberries, salmonberries don't want to cook down or thicken with sugar. I ended up using a potato masher to speed along the process, and even then the sugar-berry mix was thin and runny. In the end I added a tablespoon of pectin to get a jammier consistency.

It's not quite the delicacy that thimble jam is, but I'll take it. More arrows in the quiver.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Chanterelle Recipe Contest

Calling all foragers and chanterelle-o-vores! To celebrate the beginning of another wild chanterelle mushroom season in the Pacific Northwest, high-end food distributor is sponsoring a recipe contest. Enter your favorite original chanty recipe by Sept. 19 to be in the running. The winner gets 2 pounds of fresh chanties.

With so many favorite chanterelle recipes, I made the easy decision and went with my latest creation, Lobster Chanterelle Pasta.

Click here to enter.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Lobster Chanterelle Pasta with Fiddleheads

Surprises sometimes await you in the wild. Though usually thought of as a springtime delicacy, I found a bunch of fiddleheads the other day while hiking near Snoqualmie Pass. A trail crew had passed through earlier in the summer, clearing brush from a popular destination. The result was a new crop of lady fern fiddleheads growing out of the stumps of the macheted ferns. Fresh chanterelles from a recent foray and a trip to Mutual Fish completed the picture: Fresh fettucini topped with lobster-chanterelle cream sauce and sauteed fiddleheads. Yowwww!

I killed the lobster with a supposedly humane method: numbed it in the freezer for an hour, then took a sharp knife to a point behind its head where lines in the shell form a cross and pierced it quickly. I dunno. The lobster was still moving but maybe that was just nerves.

Next I sauteed the tail and claws in three tablespoons of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil. By the time the meat was cooked the butter-oil mixture was a deep yellow-orange color like a farm-raised egg yolk and flecked with lobster drippings. The meat got set aside and the butter poured into a larger pan in which I sauteed and seasoned a large diced shallot, a couple cloves of minced garlic, and a pound of rough-cut chanterelles. After several minutes of cooking on medium-high I deglazed with a few splashes of sherry, maybe a quarter cup in all, spiced with fresh chopped tarragon and thyme and a good pinch of red pepper flakes, then slowly added a cup of heavy cream, stirring frequently. The cooked lobster meat was then cut up and added back into the sauce before pouring over fresh fettucini with grated parmesan. Chopped parsely and sauteed fiddleheads topped the sauce.

I don't have to tell you it was good, though Marty thinks I'm on a suicide mission with all these cream sauces. Not true. Such an artery-buster did require a good red wine, so I busted out the bottle of Walla Walla Spring Valley Uriah my brother Whit gave me last year. I'm a believer in the French Paradox. Besides, foraging is good exercise.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Oh Canada!

I love Canada. At my old bookstore job I used to work regularly with Canadian publishers, who came down to Seattle each season to present their latest frontlist books. We'd go out to some nice restaurants on the publisher's dime, and I can say unequivocally that those Canadians put me under the table each time. The next day they'd be chipper as ever at the day-long meeting while I felt like slapping a cold t-bone across my face. My Canadian friends mountain bike over teeter-totter logs suspended a dozen feet above the ground, surf the icy waters of Vancouver Island's west coast, and ski like bandits on a getaway run.

I just wish I could get up there more often, if only to let some of that Canadian gnarliness rub off on me and my kids. Happily, in recent years a tradition has sprung up among four Seattle families who share a waterside cabin for the better part of a week each summer in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. There's an outhouse and a well with a hand-pump. A variety of mismatched camp stoves function as the kitchen. Everyone agrees that to update a single feature would be sacrilege. In the U.S. it's getting harder to find such rustic accommodations; not so in Canada.

The real magic of this setup is watching our nine American kids do without their accustomed gewgaws and explore the natural environment. Games of tag and sardines go on among the old-growth Douglas-firs. Hide-and-seek in head-high salal bushes is a real challenge. They build "fairy houses" on the property and keep eyes peeled for the legendary Island Trolls. But it's the water that's most tempting.

This year the older kids showed a surprising interest in catching their own food. They dug clams for hours, used a dropnet to gather bait, fished for bottomfish, and set a crab trap. They even ate oyster po' boys. In a "Lord of the Flies" moment that might freak out some parents, one little girl—a few days shy of starting kindergarten—caught a kelp greenling from shore, using a clam she had dug up for bait. All the other kids clamored 'round, each one administering a blow to the head to do it in. We grilled the greenling that night and they all ate of it with gusto under the stars. Rockfish and flounder landed on the menu as well, as did three species of clam: mahogany, littleneck, and horse. The adults had to hide batches of steamed clams just to have a few to eat.

Bottoms Up!

I don't own a boat and rarely have access to one, so one of the real treats is taking an ancient battle-scarred Whaler out to the bottomfish grounds, where it's virtually impossible to get skunked. Every kid caught a fish, bouncing weights along the bottom and using clams for bait. Sometimes you get more than you bargain for; one of the flounders came up half-eaten and it's not uncommon to haul in the occasional dogfish. Sadly, as in much of the Northwest, the salmon runs have been badly depleted and we don't even make the effort of time and gas to look for the remaining few.

The Myth of the "R" Month

Spend any time harvesting oysters and you're bound to hear the old saw about "R" months, that you should avoid oysters in any month without the letter "R": May, June, July, August—the summer season, effectively.


Now it may be true that in earlier days without reliable refrigeration and fast transportation, the warm months were the most likely to see fish spoilage. Similarly, the warm months are when we usually get the algae blooms that can cause red tides, which were less closely monitored in the past. Neither of these issues should obtain now.

The only other factor is the oyster spawn. When the water is warm enough, oysters undergo a physiological change in preparation for spawning, with their organs largely given over to the task of reproduction, resulting in a milky, somewhat mushy meat (see above). It is during this stage that many oyster lovers spurn their cherished bivalve. But wait. The milky substance is not the result of any sort of toxin or sickness. Most of it can be washed away simply enough by running the oyster under tap water. While I don't slurp down oysters raw at this time, I can think of no reason to not batter them in egg, flour, and cornmeal and fry them up for po' boys. The half-pints didn't seem to mind either.

Go Make Your Clam Bed

Probably more time was spent digging clams than any other activity. We used big shovels and small shovels, spades and scratchers. The kids dug trenches deep enough to hide in. Native littlenecks lay just a few inches beneath the surface, but butter clams (which we only used for bait) secreted themselves well below the littlnecks—and horse clams, also known as gapers, were deeper yet. Higher up the beach the kids discovered mahogany clams, a silky smooth clam with a lustrous brown shell that is delicious steamed and dipped in butter. The gapers got cut up for chowder.


Collecting bait is often more fun for kids than the actual hooking and catching of fish. Heck, I feel pretty much the same way about it sometimes—which is why filming these two kids going at it with the dropnet was such pure pleasure. It hurt my knees just to watch them squat down on their haunches so effortlessly for minutes at a time. I was reminded of more innocent summers in the distant past, of catching frogs and building bike jumps with my neighbor Sarah Sulger, the complications of adolescence and adulthood still years away. Watching this scene unfold, only a short bit captured here, might have been the highlight of my trip.

And then it was time to go home, to get back to work and prepare for the school year. While waiting for the first of two ferries to shuttle us back to the mainland, we found a monstrous patch of Himalayan blackberries and picked until the last car had debarked before running back to our vehicles for loading. I'll post the result of that quick pick in a future post: blackberry crisp.

I hope everyone had a tremendous Labor Day Weekend!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Nod to the Natives

It's Mrs. Finspot's birthday today and I figure she'd like to see—relive, really—these shots of her boy catching yet another fibby, as his sister would say. The kid is automatic. Seven years of spending every available moment in the woods have taught him well.

I've already talked up the virtues of the brook trout. Next in line is the cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki), several sub-species of which are native to the western U.S. and taken together are known for their rather trusting habits. Cutthroats don't spook quite as easily as other types of trout, and there isn't a flashy lure or fly that can't elicit a vigorous hello from them, not unlike being jumped by a slobbering St. Bernard. Cutthroats, it sometimes seems, simply beg to be caught.

Which is why we give them the thumb's-up for the family backpacking trip to a subalpine lake. The lake in question was more like a high country tarn, with a perimeter of dense undergrowth forming a protective barrier against the lesser angling lights. But faced with two seven-year-olds wielding Scooby Doo rods, the cutties didn't stand a chance.