Saturday, June 27, 2009

Alaskan Cod with Porcini and Chard Saute

I'm all about the dinner that looks gourmet but is cooked in the time it takes to get the ingredients out of the cupboard. Here's a dish in which the fish isn't really the meat—the mushrooms are. Spring porcini mushrooms are mild enough in flavor that you can prepare them in any number of ways, including, if I may be so bold, Asian fusion.

The cod I marinated in hot oil, sesame oil, and soy sauce for an hour, then tossed on the grill. Meanwhile I sliced up a few porcini buttons and sauteed them in peanut oil until nicely browned. After flipping the fish I picked a handful of Swiss chard from the garden and added it to the mushroom saute along with a splash of sesame oil and some chopped garlic. A splash of soy finished the saute.

I used to look askance at the fish-shroom combo. Something about it didn't seem right. No more. Next I'd like to try scallops sauteed with porcini.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Porcini Every Day

Eating fresh porcini is a treat, but you can experience the earthy goodness of bolete mushrooms throughout the year by drying some of your catch. If you've ever paid for a 1 oz package of dried porcini at the market then you know drying your own makes economical sense too.

For us West Coasters, spring porcini makes a case for drying because it's abundant and it's often wormy. Rather than tossing the wormy ones, I slice up those that aren't too badly infested and cut away the parts riddled with holes. Any worms I miss will usually exit once they realize the gig's up, and those that don't, being mostly water, evaporate into nothingness during the drying process. Besides, most of my dried porcini gets pulverized in a blender for use in stocks and sauces, so I'm not too concerned about a few pinpricks of worm dust; we eat more insects in our salads.

Drying Porcini, Step by Step

1. Slice mushrooms into 1/4 inch thickness. Discard badly wormed out bits.

2. Arrange in a single layer on screen. I use an old window screen scavenged just for this purpose. Prop up the screen at the corners with books if necessary to increase airflow underneath.

3. Place screen and mushrooms in a sunny room or outside and blast them with a portable fan. Depending on your climate, this may take a few days. Alternatively, you can place on a pan in an oven on low heat and leave the door open for air circulation; I've never tried this technique but others claim it works. A food dehydrator is another option.

4. Very important. Make sure every last mushroom slice is thoroughly dried. Some pieces will snap in half; others will be bendy but if you rip in two the inside shouldn't be at all moist. A single undried piece can spoil an entire batch with mold. On the other hand, don't overdry or you'll leach out the good flavor oils.

5. Store dried porcini carefully. My main foe is the indestructible kitchen moth, so I keep my porcini in glass mason jars with rubber-gasket lids that lock down.

Like a fine wine, the longer you age your porcini, the more the earthy essence will be concentrated. Now you've got a taste of the woods to enjoy year-round. Reconstitute a handful of pieces for a pasta sauce, or pulverize and add to your favorite beef stock for an extra boost. I use dried porcini in any number of dishes, from Oxtail Gnocchi to Braised Chicken to Chanterelle Soup.

Speaking of bolete worms, this time around I noticed an interesting phenomenon. I used six books to prop up two screens side by side. One of the books, Bill Buford's Heat appropriately enough, has a bright yellow dust jacket. The worms that crawled out of the mushrooms during the drying process all migrated to this colorful cover where they made their last stand in the sun. None of the other books exhibited evidence of worms. In fact, I've never actually seen worms escaping off their host mushrooms before, it's just something I assumed happened under the cover of darkness. It's as if they all made a break for the yellow book, thinking it salvation. Is this because the gills of old boletes are yellow? I have no idea, but I'll be using Heat again.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Spring Lamb with Morel Wine & Herb Sauce

While porcini hunting recently, I had good luck finding some exceptionally large morels in one drainage, with several larger than my hand. I found most of them near the elevation limit of the fruiting porcini, and I suppose if I had kept going up I might have found a bunch more, but my heart was set on porcini, so I picked these as a satisfying bonus—and made sure to mark my maps with notes for further investigation another time.

I got three meals out of these collateral morels, including this lamb dinner for six that also boasted the last gasp of my in-city miner's lettuce patch. The miner's lettuce I added to a salad of tender spring greens from the garden, which got topped with three large squares of semolina and chive gnocchi. For the gnocchi recipe, click here. The grilled lamb graced the gnocchi with a ladle of morel sauce completing the picture. Really, it was an insanely good meal, and not nearly as difficult to prepare as all these instructions might suggest. Semolina gnocchi is a piece of cake, much easier than potato gnocchi, and the morel sauce is fairly intuitive if you've ever made a sauce before. Mascarpone is a nice trick for replacing heavy cream; a little goes a long way and it's a useful thickening agent.

Lamb Marinade

6 Lamb chops, French-cut
3 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tbsp sage, chopped
1 tbsp thyme, chopped
1 tbsp rosemary, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste

Season lamb with salt and pepper. Whisk together remaining ingredients and brush on both sides of lamb. Marinate 2 hours, then grill.

Morel Wine & Herb Sauce

1 lb morels, halved (or quartered if large)
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter, divided
1 large shallot, diced
1 cup red wine
1 oz porcini, pulverized
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 heaping tbsp mascarpone (or 1/4 cup heavy cream)
splash Madeira, to taste (optional)
salt and pepper

Reconstitute porcini ahead of time in warm water and set aside for 30 minutes. Heat olive oil and 1 tbsp butter in skillet, then add diced shallot and morels. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes over medium-high heat before pouring in red wine. Reduce by two-thirds, then add porcini stock, herbs, and a splash of Madeira. Lower heat to medium and cook several more minutes to reduce by half or so. Just before serving, stir in remaining butter and mascarpone. The sauce should thicken nicely and the butter will lend it an attractive sheen. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with that red wine you've been saving for a special meal. Serves 4-6.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Spring Porcini Salad

Perhaps the most enduring way to eat spring porcini is grilled. Unlike fall porcini, which herald the coming of winter and hearty meals cooked indoors, the spring porcini of the West Coast fruits just in time for the kick-off of the barbecue season, with summer solstice being the peak time in my region.

Arranged on a bed of fresh spring greens picked moments earlier, this porcini salad was the perfect accompaniment to a dinner of grilled Copper River sockeye and local Washington asparagus. To prepare the mushrooms for grilling, I brushed on a marinade of olive oil, garlic, and chopped herbs from the garden (thyme, oregano, parsley), then set them immediately on the hot grill, cooking over medium heat until the porcini were lightly browned on both sides. A dressing of olive oil, cider vinegar, and honey finished the salad.

This is a similar presentation to chef Keith Luce's recipe for Roasted Porcini with Honey & Thyme in my article on "The Poor Man's Steak" in the October '08 issue of Seattle Metropolitan magazine, except rather than cooking the porcini in a stuffy kitchen you can hang outside with friends by the barbecue drinking a beer and admiring the porcini as it browns up.

Mushrooms & Marinade

1/2 lb fresh medium-sized porcini buttons, sliced 1/4 inch thick
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 tbsp fresh oregano, chopped
1 tbsp fresh parsley choped
salt and pepper, to taste

Whisk together marinade ingredients. Slice porcini, brush on marinade, and immediately place on hot grill over medium heat, turning periodically and brushing on more marinade to keep moist. Grill until nicely golden brown, but not dark brown. With tongs, remove from grill and arrange over tender spring greens


Equal parts olive oil and cider vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Add honey to taste. Drizzle over porcini and greens. Finish with a few shavings of romano. The sweetness of honey combined with the sharpness of romano makes for an ideal pairing for the meaty porcini mushrooms, and the warmth of the porcini contrasted with the cool, crispy salad greens is a match for the season. Enjoy outside with a glass of rosé and good friends, as we did.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

All Hail the Spring King

Some may call it heresy, but I'll say it anyway: I prefer picking spring porcini to morels. Yes, finding morels is one of the great pleasures of foraging—and eating them is an unparalleled culinary treat. But hunting spring porcini means venturing deeper into more pristine wilderness at a time when the wildflowers are in full bloom and the songbirds in full throat. As with morels, you need an understanding of habitat conditions, tree composition, slope aspect, and so on, making a porcini hunt a challenging puzzle to figure out. I like to spend a few days roaming on the sunny side of the mountains, camping and hiking while I load up on a supply of spring kings to last me through the year.

Usually I'll start in the lower valleys and work my way up in elevation. Sometimes you don't see the mushrooms at all; you need to look for a bump in the duff—affectionately known to hunters as a "mushrump"—that signals the growth of a bolete underneath. These are the ones you want, the firm young buttons. They're also more likely to be bug-free than the older fully emerged mushrooms flapping in the breeze. Which brings me to one of the sad facts of porcini hunting: be prepared to toss a lot of mushrooms. Trim the end or slice in half and you'll know right away: more than a few will be riddled with worm holes. I try to salvage what I can to dry for later; unblemished buttons get cooked fresh.

Until recently, picking spring porcini mushrooms was like waking up in the morning next to a stranger. A beautiful, nameless stranger. How embarrassing not to know a name! A few proposed appellations floated around the mushroom scene, with none sticking. Some called the mushroom a spring variant of Boletus edulis, others Boletus pinophilus. But the latter was a European species that didn't seem to fit, and the former is only the most famous bolete of them all, the king bolete, a fall species that differs from its vernal cousin in a few dramatic ways. So most of us just referred to them as "spring kings" and left it at that.

Now David Arora, of Mushrooms Demystified fame, has offered a new name to put an end to the confusion. Boletus rex-veris (from the Latin, meaning "spring king") would give the mushroom new species status.

Spring kings differ from true king boletes (B. edulis) in a few striking ways. Most obvious is the timing; spring kings usually start fruiting on the east slopes of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains a few weeks after the morels have started. In my area this means mid-June most years. They fruit underground and often don't burst through the duff until fully mature, and they can also be found in clusters, sometimes with several specimens fruiting together from the same clump.

Though not the equal of Boletus edulis in flavor, the spring king has a subtle porcino taste and can be quite firm and crunchy in the button stage. A few buttons can transform a simple camp dinner into something worthy of the best restaurants.

Camper's Special Pig & Porcini Feast

3-4 porcini buttons, trimmed and sliced 1/4 -inch thick
5-6 fresh morels, halved
1/2 lb Italian sausage, sliced
2 slices quality bacon, diced
1/2 lb asparagus, cut into thirds
1 cup rice
parmesan cheese
fresh herbs
wild violets for garnish

1. Make rice (or noodles). When done, add butter, cream, parmesan, and fresh herbs to taste for creamy texture. Keep covered.

2. While rice is cooking, saute diced bacon in a dab of butter until crispy. Set aside, leaving bacon fat in pan. Saute mushrooms, turning periodically, until browned. Set aside with bacon. Add sausage to pan and brown, then add asparagus and cook a few more minutes. Return bacon and mushrooms to pan for another minute or two. Serve over rice, then repair to cozy camp chair with a cold, hearty brew and a blazing fire to keep the wild animals at bay.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

End of the Line

Imagine a world without fish.

On June 8 the film End of the Line was released. I encourage you to see it. The movie is based on a fine book by British journalist Charles Clover. I remember reading the book several years ago and thinking, this should wake up a few folks. But change is slow. The question is: Do we have enough time?

In one passage about the harmful effects of bottom trawling, Clover asks readers to to imagine "what people would say if a band of hunters strung a mile of net between two immense all-terrain vehicles and dragged it at speed across the plains of Africa." The result, in this apt analogy, is a "strangely bedraggled landscape resembling a harrowed field. There are no markets for about a third of the animals they have caught because they don't taste good or because they are simply too small or too squashed. This pile of corpses is dumped on the plain to be consumed by scavengers."

This is just one of the common practices that occurs on the high seas every day.

Over-fishing, habitat destruction, and pollution are taking a toll that, for many generations, was hard to quantify—because it was hard to see. Then the great Atlantic cod fishery collapsed and since then the litany of diminished fisheries has been ever-increasing. The decline and fall is now clearly visible if we open our eyes. I've lived in Seattle since 1991—less than 20 years. In that short time I've watched certain salmon and steelhead runs in Puget Sound dwindle to near extinction. Shellfish beaches have closed. Limits on crabs continue to shrink, and stocks of rockfish are being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

In 2002 the sorely missed Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a 5-part series, "Our Troubled Sound," that was a clarion call for anyone who thinks the Sound looks just dandy from the top deck of a ferryboat. More recently PBS Frontline has documented the hurdles facing the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. (You can watch the entire 2-hour program, "Poisoned Waters," here.)

So, what can you do? For starters, you can get involved with your local watershed. In my area, Puget Sound Partnership and a number of smaller environmental groups are doing the heavy lifting; no doubt there's a group of concerned citizens in your area too. You can also make a difference with your purchasing decisions. As a consumer it's very difficult to know how to purchase fish wisely. Fish don't come with labels. Usually we don't know the specifics of where they're caught, by whom, and with what equipment. Seafood Watch tries to take some of the mystery out of the equation so you can make an informed decision. Check out their helpful Seafood Guide—and make sure to bookmark it.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Pineapple Weed Express

In another lifetime I might have been a treasure seeker. That's what I dig about foraging. You study inscrutable charts (known as maps), pore over old parchments (on the Interwebs), and finally light out for adventure and riches in distant realms (down the block).

Like some of the great explorers of yesterday, I embarked this afternoon—this blistering, unseasonably hot afternoon—to open up a new tea route to the south. Iced tea, that is. I went in search of the lowly pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea), a plant I knew nothing about until stumbling across a few references to it recently. Unlike virtually every other weed I've been snacking on in recent months, the pineapple is native. You've probably never noticed it before. It grows low to the ground, usually just a few inches tall, sometimes more than a foot in good conditions, with feathery leaves reminiscent of a carrot top and little greenish-yellow flowerheads about the size of a "peppercorn or pencil erasure," as Seattle botanist Arthur Lee Jacobsen puts it.

Like the sunflower, it is a composite, a member of the Asteraceae family, and is related to chamomile. Pineapple weeds flourish in marginal habitats: compacted soil, sidewalks, gravel beds, old lots. Their tap roots cling to the most hardscrabble of surfaces, the harder the scrabble the better. Crush a flower head between your fingers and you'll know right away if your identification is spot-on. That's right, the smell of pineapple. A pleasing scent to be sure. In Seattle they're harvestable from June through September.

So I set out with Big Dreams. Down the street I went, scanning the nooks and crannies of traffic circle planters, cracks in the sidewalk, guerilla paths of dogs and children. I saw many edible weeds, including a tall patch of Japanese knotweed, but no pineapple weed. My journey took me to the local p-patch, where I snapped some photos and inventoried the crops. Then, just when I was ready to turn around and return to home port in disgrace, at the bottom of a hill in a gravelly lot being used as a de facto driveway by local residents, I spied them: the object of my quest, a scraggly patch of pineapple weeds.

It didn't take long to dry the flower heads in the hot June sun. I spread them on a black plate outside our front door. An hour later I scooped up two teaspoon's worth and steeped them in two cups of hot water for 10 minutes. Then I added a touch of honey and ice, sat back in the rocking chair on the front porch, and remembered my days as an intrepid explorer while afternoon commuters fought their way home in the baking sun.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fillet Mignon with Devil's Club Bordelaise and Wild Wood-Sorrel

Here at FOTL headquarters we've been known on occasion to indulge in lunches that might be described as unfair, over the top, or generally not in line with a proper upbringing—and that's mostly without martinis! What can I say? It's called "working from home."

Last week, for instance, there was vanilla ice cream with homemade chocolate sauce to break up the heat of the day. This week—i.e. just a few minutes ago—witnessed a plating of fillet mignon for the afternoon repast. Connecting both these luncheons, besides sheer indulgence, was a nasty barbed plant familiar to hikers and bushwhackers throughout Cascadia: the treacherous devil's club.

My experiments with devil's club have just started. So far I've learned that the newly emerged buds of this native plant, with their strong aroma of conifer forest and wet woodland, can be used for both sweet and savory dishes alike to bestow a depth of character and regional identity. Last week, sweet. This week, a nod to the other side of the aisle. I adapted a bordelaise recipe from Saveur, opting not to make my own demi-glace (10 pounds of veal bones anyone?), going with Demi-Glace Gold instead.

The wild wood-sorrel, probably Oxalis oregona, came from a patch found near Tiger Mountain during a pit stop with the kids on the way home from camping in the Teanaway this past weekend. Oxalis isn't actually sorrel (Rumex sp.), but this shamrock-looking groundcover has a similar tart, lemony taste due to oxalic acid, earning it the common name (one of many) of wood-sorrel. While you shouldn't eat it in large quantities because the acid can cause gastric distress, in a salad or as a garnish it offers a sharp counterpoint to sweet and unctuous dishes.

1/2 cup red wine
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 shallot, finely diced
1 bay leaf
3-4 tbsp demi-glace
1 heaping tbsp fresh devil's club buds, chopped
2 6-oz. filet mignons
salt and pepper, to taste
1 tbsp canola oil
1/2 tbsp chilled butter, diced
1/2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1/2 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 bunch wild wood-sorrel, de-stemmed

1. In a saucepan, combine wine, thyme sprig, shallot, and bay leaf over medium-high heat. Reduce wine until almost evaporated, then add most of chopped devil's club. Cook another minute, stirring. Discard the thyme and bay leaf. Stir in demi-glace. Cover, remove from heat, and set aside.

2. Prepare the filets: Heat oven to 500 degrees. Season filets with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a 10-inch skillet over high heat. Sear steaks, flipping once, until browned, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer skillet to oven and roast until steaks are cooked to taste, about 4–5 minutes for rare. Set aside on a plate.

3. Sauce the steak: Return saucepan to medium heat. Whisk in butter and remaining pinch of devil's club. Scrape skillet bottom for drippings and add a spoonful to sauce. Remove saucepan from heat; stir in parsley and season sauce with salt and pepper. Transfer steaks to cutting board; add juices from plate to pan and stir. Spoon 2 tbsp sauce onto each plate. Slice steak into 1/4"-thick slices. Sprinkle with rosemary and thyme. Serve with wild greens such as watercress or wood-sorrel.

Initially I was worried that watercress would have made a better pairing with the meat, but as it turned out the tartness of the wood-sorrel was just the ticket for giving a fresh punch of greenery to what is otherwise a very rich dish. And the devil's club is an ideal way to temper this richness further and expand it with a cool taste of the woods. Serve with a full-bodied red.