Thursday, November 27, 2008

Gobble Gobble

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Here at FOTL we have plenty to be thankful for, including wonderful family, food, and foraging grounds. I'd also like to take a moment to thank you, dear reader, for joining me on my trek through wild foodways this past year. The first anniversary draws near.

If you harvested your own cranberries for Turkey Day, I'd like to hear about it. Several species of cranberry are native to North America, including the common cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos) of temperate climates worldwide and the large American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) of the Northeast, and there's a thriving cranberry industry in a few places around the country as well, notably Cape Cod, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and even my home state of Washington. But I've never actually seen a non-commercial cranberry bog in the wild, not that I've gone looking for one.

A good alternative for us Pac Nor'westerners, if we want to make our own fresh berry sauce for the bird, is the evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), which is still kicking out berries through much of its range at the lower elevations. They say the fruit is even sweeter after a frost. While down in Oregon's Rogue River Canyon a couple weeks ago I munched on these late-season treats while walking the Rogue River Trail and fishing for steelhead.

Making a sweet and savory huckleberry sauce to complement a roast turkey or other meats is almost too easy to be true (like home-made cranberry sauce, for that matter), but you can complicate it with any number of additions, from various liqueurs to spices and whatever else gets your gobble up.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Amanita Eater

FOTL wants to be a responsible blog. Really. We almost killed this post. But knowledge wins over fear and ignorance. So here's the caveat emptor right up front: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Misidentifying this mushroom could KILL YOU DEAD.

These are Amanita mushrooms. Edible ones, but that's beside the point. The genus Amanita kills more people than any other genus of fungi. The similar looking Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) victimizes more hapless foragers than any other mushroom period, with the Destroying Angel (Amanita ocreata et al) close on its heels. This is not the darn-this-gastric-distress sort of discomfort; this is the sign-me-up-for-a-new-liver deal. Amatoxins cannot be cooked out, dried out, or diluted. There is no antidote. Take a few bites of the Death Cap and you better hope there's a liver with your name on it. Click here for a survivor's tale.

That said, there are a number of edible and choice Amanitas. Italians in particular are fond of them. They call this particular species Corccora or Coccoli (the latter translates as "pampered baby"), which will have to do for us too since our variety on the West Coast doesn't have a widely used common name and the Latin is under dispute. You'll see it referred to scientifically as Amanita calyptrata, A. calyptroderma, and A. lanei. David Arora refers to it as A. calyptrata in Mushrooms Demystified, but don't be surprised if the next edition calls it A. lanei. In any event, all three names refer to the same mushroom.

Amanita mushrooms share some common traits. They fruit out of a cottony membrane known as
a universal veil or volva that encloses the entire body, commonly referred to as an egg. As the mushroom grows, the veil parts and begins to deteriorate, marking some species such as Amanita muscaria and Amanita pantherina with the warts that are so characteristic of the genus. The Corccora, on the other hand, is usually left with a distinctive white skullcap rather than warts.

Corccora generally exhibit striations at the cap margin (see those fine lines along the edge of the cap at top) and hollow stems (see sliced stem at right). Unlike most Amanitas, the gills and stem are creamy colored or light yellow rather than white. Older specimens have a fishy odor.

Now I've given you enough information to go out and get yourself killed—but it's the same info you'll find in the field guides. If you really want to try this mushroom, go hunting with someone who has local on-the-ground knowledge of the species and has been eating it for a long time. Corccora are mycorrhizal with Pacific madrone, so your best bet for habitat is the coastal mountain chain between Point Reyes, California, and Roseburg, Oregon. Isolated areas with good stands of madrone in Washington and B.C. also have Corccora. Here's a video I shot a few days ago in the Rogue River Canyon of southwest Oregon that shows the unique egg-like fruiting and habitat:

The handsome specimens above got sauteed in butter and added to scrambled eggs. The hint of seafood and firm texture make them far superior to a standard supermarket button.

Other than that, the Rogue River mushroom harvest was pretty much a bust. We managed a pound or so of chanterelles from a never-miss spot and that was that. This time last year was perhaps the greatest fruiting of Boletus edulis I had ever seen, with more than we could reasonably eat and dry over the course of one long weekend, and Leccinums to boot, not to mention generous fruitings of white chanterelles and black trumpets as well. That's the way it goes. Mushrooms can't be entirely demystified.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Going Rogue

I'm back from the Rogue River Canyon in southwest Oregon, where I helped a friend put his cabin to bed for the winter. This is an annual event, and though the summer steelhead fishing tends to be well past its peak by mid-November, we spend a good part of the day on the river anyway, walking the trails, hunting for river teeth, casting a line, and generally soaking up the spectacular canyon action. Bald eagles soar overhead and otters frolic in the currents. There's so much to see and do that invariably we wind up walking home in the dark, the "reptilian brain" tuned into every snapping twig (cougar!) and rustling leaf (bear!). Back at the cabin we warm ourselves beside an old woodstove. Meals are whumped up on a propane stove, light cast by kerosene lanterns. It's a First Principles sort of deal.

This place is deep in my bones. I lived there for the better part of a year in my mid-20s and returned in 2004 for a second tour. Fifteen years ago I caught my first steelhead in one of the river's hallowed holes and learned how to key out wild mushrooms found in the woods that stretch unbroken for miles around the cabin. It's safe to say FOTL wouldn't exist without my experiences in the Rogue.

Fishing for "half-pounders" is one of the local gigs. They're immature steelhead that run up the Rogue for reasons scientists have yet to fully understand. Too young to spawn, they enter fresh water in the late summer and loiter all winter, eating just enough to stay alive, then drop back down to the salt to finish maturing before their actual spawning run the next year. It’s a puzzling phenomenon that occurs in only a handful of watersheds along the Oregon-California border, most famously in the Klamath and Rogue rivers. Fly-fishermen in particular admire the half-pounders, which generally tape out between 12 and 16 inches and lustily take a fly, providing good sport when the big fish aren’t ready to play.

I don't eat a lot of half-pounders because I'd rather catch them as bigger adults of several pounds. But a trip to the Rogue wouldn't be the same without a hatchery fish for breakfast one morning. Like the adults, their flesh is pink from eating shrimp and other saltwater crustaceans. The taste is more subtle than salmon—imagine fresh sautéed rainbow trout with a hint of the sea to it, an essence of shrimp or crab that expands the flavor without losing that fine, nutty troutness. It’s a noble taste that should be enjoyed with good friends.

In my next post I'll be discussing a type of mushroom—common in the Rogue River Canyon—that might kill you if your identification isn't up to snuff.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Matsutake Gohan

The pineapple express that flooded local rivers this past week also extended a mushroom season that looked just about kaput. I was surprised to find a good fruiting of matsutake in the Olympic lowlands in addition to some passable chanties and a single porcino. Actually, I can't say precisely whether the recent balmy/rainy weather is strictly of Hawaiian origin (we need Cliff Mass for that), but I can say that the matsutake were number 1 buttons, worm-free, and retailing at Uwajimaya for the bargain price of $35 a pound. For a moment I even considered selling my stash, but then I came to my senses.

I had a few pounds, so I made another sukiyaki and used the rest for Gohan. This is an exceptionally spare recipe that shows off the unique aroma of the matsutake ("red hots and dirty socks," as they say) and is mostly executed by the rice cooker.

2 1/2 cups Japanese short-grain rice, thoroughly washed
2 1/2 cups water
1-2 matsutake mushrooms, sliced or shredded
1/3 cup carrot, diced
4 tbsp sake
4 tbsp soy sauce

Put rice and water in cooker and set aside for 30 minutes. Add matsutake, carrots, sake, and soy sauce, and turn on rice cooker. When rice is cooked, mix up ingredients and empty into a bowl. Cover and let sit 10 minutes before serving.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Local Food Events

For those of you near FOTL's stomping grounds (or those needing an excuse to travel), a couple noteworthy food-related events are coming up in January.

First, Michael Pollan will be discussing food sustainability issues at Benaroya Hall on January 12 as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series. Pollan, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, is the author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma. It would be hard to overestimate the impact his books have had on the current dialogue about how and what we should eat.

Click here to order tickets to Michael Pollan.

Second, the winter session of SAL's Wednesday University begins on January 14: Food for Thought: The Ethics, Culture, and Politics of Eating. From the brochure: "Using key concepts and approaches drawn from ethics, political ecology, and cultural studies, this course will explore how food production and consumption creates meanings, identities, relationships, and values that extend far beyond nutrition alone. We will investigate how ethics and values inform who eats what, where, and how; issues of hunger and vulnerability; debates about farming and genetically modified food; movements to eat local and eat slow; food as a form of self-care; and the globalization of food economies."

Click here to register for Wednesday University's Food for Thought course.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Wild Mushroom Risotto

Feed your friends and there's a good chance they'll feed you back. It's a positive feedback loop, you might say. Foraging especially is about passing the basket. Nothing pleases me more than taking some wild edibles over to the home of a good friend who knows how to wield a Wusthof and whomping up a great dinner.

This weekend we happened to have a bunch of chanterelles on hand as well as a single porcino and a few hedgehogs. The black trumpets came from the market, where they were selling for $25 a pound. Rumor has it that trumpets can be found in a few isolated parts of Washington, but the real mother lode is in Northern California. A professional forager I know talks about hillsides near the Mendocino coast being carpeted with the little buggers. Later this week I'll be in southwestern Oregon where I know of a patch, so hopefully we'll have a future post on the trumpet.

In the meantime, you can salivate over my friend Tipton's Wild Mushroom Risotto, which, while easy to make, is still a risotto and requires that extra hoodoo-voodoo to come out just right. (Here's a more detailed risotto roadmap.) Tip nailed it. Just saute a couple diced shallots in butter, add a half-pound or more of 'shrooms and cook several minutes. Next stir in the rice, which is when the fun begins. The key to a good risotto is toasting those rice grains for a few minutes and coating them with the saute before adding the first ladleful of liquid. After that, it's all patience. As Tip said, make sure each ladleful is soaked up and evaporated before adding the next. And you don't want to over-scrape. Using a squared-off wooden risotto spoon is essential. We used hot chicken stock, reducing the amount of each ladle toward the end, and finished the risotto with butter, grated parm, and a sprinkling of chopped parsley. Classic and simple.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Goin' Hog Wild

Ha! Just when you thought it was safe to visit FOTL again, what with change everywhere apparent and all, we're still stuck on this blasted mushroom trail.

Well, there are worse places to be.

Anyway, the time is now to go hog wild. Wild for hedghogs, that is, Hydnum rapandum, the hedgehog mushroom, named for the bristly teeth under the cap. Hedgehogs are hearty fellers, which is why we're still on a mycological roll. While most of the good fungal edibles succumb to the first hard frost, the hogs are just getting started.

One of my favorite recipes for hogs I snagged out of David Arora's All That the Rain Promises: Dice up some pancetta (or reg'lar ol' bacon) and saute in a pan. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon when it's almost crispy and add chopped hedgehogs. Cook a couple minutes in the bacon fat and add pine nuts. Be careful not to burn the nuts. Season with salt and pepper and a generous pinch or two of chopped fresh rosemary. Add the bacon back in at the end, stir, and serve atop toast points or thinly sliced baguette.

Most of the serious hedgehog hunting in these parts takes place at the coast, but the mountains produce some hogs as well, and I'm lucky enough to have a Cascade honey hole that puts out more than a few. If you look carefully you'll notice in the video below a dusting of snow on a few of these hedgehogs that I found at the 4,500-foot level in a mature hemlock forest. (You'll also hear gunshots and the croaking of a raven.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It's Show Time!

Here at FOTL Headquarters we harbor strong feelings about today's election...but we try to be a non-partisan blog. Regardless of your political leanings, it's time to get out and do your civic duty. Happy voting everyone!