Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bittercress: A Misnomer

I'm in Arkansas for spring break visiting the inlaws and loving the 70-degree weather down here. This place is a forager's paradise. I'll have more to say about that in future posts, but in the meantime I had a post about eating your weedies queued up minus the photos. Turns out all the shots are safe and sound in my camera...back in Seattle. So without further ado, Plan B.

See that weed at top, growing between the rungs of my ladder in the backyard? It's all over Seattle. Apparently it's all over Fayetteville, Arkansas, too, according to my limited canvassing of this university town in the Ozarks. In fact, various representatives of the genus Cardamine are common across much of North America and the world. And we might consider using that pinch of Latin when we talk about it, even if it makes us feel professorial and a bit much, because the common name is flat out wrong.

Bittercress. Whoever gave it the name bittercress never actually tasted it. According to Arthur Lee Jacobson: "Over 200 years ago, Linnaeus named a related English weed Cardamine amara, meaning bitter. Writers subsequently transferred the inaccurate name Bitter cress to ALL Cardamine species, and it is one of the largest genera in the mustard family."

There are some 200 species of Cardamine. Like many other Brassicas, these little annuals and perennials are high in nutrients and have been used for centuries for medicinal purposes. In my region Cardamine hirsuta is the most common species, although I'm pretty sure the robust one in the photo is a different species, possibly Cardamine flexuosa.

All Cardamines are typically hot and peppery in a pleasant way that brings a simple salad to life. This is a plant to know and enjoy regardless of its misleading common name.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

No Ordinary Fish

Rainbow trout first captured my imagination in sixth grade when I filled an aquarium at school with a few dozen fingerlings. Most of them went belly up, but the hardiest survived to become silver streaks of excitement for Middle School boys with their faces pushed up against the glass.

Here in Washington State on the dry, eastern side of the Cascade Mountains, we have a species of trout variously called redside or redband. In fact it is a subspecies of rainbow adapted to live in the desert canyon country of the Pacific Northwest, a harsh environment of fluctuating river flows and oscillating weather extremes. The common names derive from the intense rosy blush coloring the fish's gill plate and flanks. These rainbows, I discovered soon after moving here, flash gorgeous colors and fight like hell.

Most of my fishing for redsides has been in the Yakima Canyon, a drainage severely compromised by dams and irrigation which some anglers refer to it as "the ditch." But that ditch's trout mesmerized me from the get-go. I had fished for rainbows all over the country, and though these particular fish rarely attained the size of rainbows I had caught up and down the fertile streams of the Rockies, they seemed to me more beautiful and pound-for-pound better fighters than their compatriots elsewhere.

My suspicions about the Yakima's rainbows were confirmed several years ago after meeting a state fish commissioner around the campfire one night. He told me that contrary to public perception, the Yakima's rainbows are hardly the mutts most people think they are. Years of stocking for a "put-and-take" fishery ended in the early 80's with new selective gear rules that culminated with "catch and release" designation in 1990 (those wanting to keep a fish can do so below Roza Dam). Now the fish are strictly wild—that is, self-sustaining. More than that, DNA tests proved that years of stocking hadn't fundamentally changed the river's native trout. Apparently the natives didn't find the stockers attractive or fit for breeding.

"You're catching 'bows descended from the same fish that Lewis and Clark caught," the commissioner told me.

If only this were true for other watersheds.

As Anders Halverson explains in An Entirely Synthetic Fish, his book tracing the remarkable journey of the rainbow trout, from its origins in one of the nation's first hatchery programs to its subsequent spread around the country and the world, the success of the rainbow has had a greater impact on fish and fishing than anyone could have predicted. Rainbow introductions created fisheries where none previously existed, helped to initiate countless young anglers, and altered ecosystems. With echoes of Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire, Halverson shows that not only have we engineered a fish but that the fish has also engineered us.

The story begins with Livingston Stone, a New Hampshire pastor turned aquaculturist. In 1872, with orders from his boss Spencer Fullerton Baird, head of the newly hatched U.S. Fish Commission, Stone went west on the transcontinental railroad to San Francisco, then traveled north to the upper reaches of the Sacramento Basin in the shadow of Mt. Shasta. Here, within an arrow shot of the Wintu Indians, he set up shop on the McCloud River with hopes of propagating chinook salmon. The salmon hatchery didn't pan out but further upstream he met success with another North Pacific species, the rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss).

By 1886 the U.S. Fish Commission had sent rainbow trout to 33 of the 38 states then in the Union as well as England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and Mexico. In time the fish would establish populations in South America, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and Africa. Rainbow trout would become a "global species, both physically and culturally," remarks Halverson. "The range expansion that corn, sheep, dogs, and humans only achieved over thousands of years, rainbow trout have accomplished in little more than a century." The author goes on to examine the concurrent rise of recreational fishing, suggesting that such a rise might not have been possible without the adaptability of rainbow trout, for the sheer numbers of modern anglers require a hardy fish that can be produced—or reproduce on its own—in quantity. Hence the proliferation of hatcheries around the world, for good or ill, and the current debate over wild fish versus man-made fish.

The rainbow's ascension occurred during a time when the control of nature seemed not only possible but preferable. Massive dam projects changed the face of the American West in particular, and where warm, muddy rivers once flowed there were now dam-controlled water courses with clear, cold water—prime trout habitat. Halverson details one of the more unseemly chain of events: the poisoning of the Green River (tributary to the Colorado) and its native "rough fish" to make way for sport fish like the rainbow. The poisoned fish now reside on the Endangered Species list.

As the Green River episode illustrates, the rainbow's success has come at considerable cost. Rainbow trout now compete with native fish on nearly every continent. They're also used as compensation for degraded habitats. Throughout the 20th century it was commonplace to erect a fish hatchery where the assault of pollution, resource extraction, and development made natural fish propagation an impossibility. On the other hand, one wonders how many of today's river stewards were first lured to the joys of fish and fishing by the leaping rainbow.

Anglers and history buffs alike will tie into a good story with An Entirely Synthetic Fish, a story that is both peculiarly American and also global in its lessons. After all, China is the new frontier for trout fishermen.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Gobo Mojo

Got a tip on a burdock patch in Seattle the other day. Burdock (Arctium sp.) is a Eurasian weed now common across much of North America. It's a biennial and can grow to immense size, with two-foot leaves and flower stalks up to nine feet tall. Like stinging nettles and poison ivy, many of us have memories of encountering burdock as kids—a sweater covered in burrs, say, or the chore of taking a wire brush to Fido after a romp in the patch. Rumor has it the inventor of Velcro™ had burdock stuck on his mind when he came up with his very lucrative invention.

But like so many things, when I actually wanted to find me some burdock...you know, to eat...it suddenly became elusive. Burdock is a weed of fields, margins, and waste areas; the city offers prime habitat for many of our tastiest weeds, but burdock? Not so much. Which is why I followed up on this tip right away. And it proved a good one. Just as the tipster had predicted, there was a tangle of burdock infesting a hillside adjacent to a soccer field in the heart of Seattle. The dead stalks from last year's crop were easy to spot with their clusters of burrs waiting for the unsuspecting.

I located some fresh rosettes of leaves and went to work with my shovel. Burdock roots grow deep, often more than two or three feet beneath the surface, and need to be coaxed out of the ground so as not to break. First-year roots are the ones to target for food; once the plant forms a flower stalk in the second year the root turns woody, though these can be thinly sliced and dried to make tinctures. Today's were mostly younguns and relatively easy to spade out of the ground, but longer roots in compacted soil can be quite an effort. In a matter of minutes I had a bunch of dirt-covered roots in my bag and walked back to the car.

In the parking lot I saw a city parks employee picking up trash with one of those mechanical arms. My shovel and roots were already safely tucked away in the car, but as he came closer he noticed me checking out a patch of bittercress where I was parked. I picked some and nibbled, earning a look of speechless shock from the gentleman that I will not soon forget.

Kinpira Gobo

The Japanese are great lovers of burdock and ascribe many medicinal values to the root. It's reported to be beneficial for your skin and your liver. I'd say it's beneficial for your taste buds too. It's starchy like a potato and has the round, buttery flavor one associates with artichoke heart; there's also a sweetness and even a faint citrusy edge. Kinpira Gobo is a traditional Japanese dish and easy to make. The addition of shichimi togarashi is recommended here and is a good call.

1/2 lb burdock root
1-2 carrots
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp sake
1 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp soy
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp toasted sesame seeds
Shichimi togarashi (Japanese 7-spice blend), to taste (optional)

1. Lightly peel the burdock root, then julienne and remove to a bowl of water for 10 minutes.
2. Julienne carrots.
3. Heat oil in a wok or frying pan and stir-fry burdock for a few minutes. Stir in carrots and cook another minute or two before adding the remaining ingredients.
4. Stir-fry until the liquid has evaporated, leaving a glaze on the vegetables.
5. Serve immediately with a sprinkling of sesame seeds and shichimi togarashi.

You can also find commercially grown burdock in many Asian markets. The root will be longer, straighter, and prettier than wild burdock, but a chef I know checked out my recent batch and pronounced it more complex smelling than any of the commercial stuff she had used in the past. Plus, there's the added incentive of freaking out your local groundskeeper.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Green Gold: Miner's Lettuce

The Forty-Niners put San Francisco on the map and explored north into much of California and the Oregon Territory. Most of them didn't strike it rich. Instead they left their mark in the form of claims, place names, settlements—and in some cases environmental degradation that is still with us today.

Life was hard for a gold miner. You had to have your wits about you to survive. One of the many dangers was scurvy, caused by a deficiency of vitamin c. But the smart miner knew there was more than gold in them thar hills. There was green, too—a humble green (recently re-classified in the Claytonia genus) that grew in thick mats, was available much of the year, and packed the necessary nutrients a prospector needed to live in the bush.

Hello miner's lettuce. Also called spring beauty, winter purslane, or Indian lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata, native to the western U.S., with particular abundance in the Pacific Northwest, is the best known species of miner's lettuce. As one of the first spring greens to emerge, it's a valuable edible just when it's needed most.

Pictures typically show Claytonia perfoliata with a round leaf from which a flower stalk emerges in the center. Early in the season, however, the leaves are more apt to be spade-shaped. They're tender and succulent, reminiscent of spinach yet with a wild flavor that isn't overpowering.

While I usually find my supply of miner's lettuce when I'm hiking in the Cascades or Olympics, there are also patches right inside the Seattle city limits. I picked this bunch today in a park near Lake Washington and used it in place of spinach in a classic early spring salad with beets, goat cheese, roasted walnuts, and a simple vinaigrette.

Miner's lettuce also has the distinction of being one of the few green foods, along with Stinging Nettle Soup, that my finicky, vegetable-averse boy will eat. If you haven't eaten miner's lettuce before, try a few leaves added to your usual salad. Soon you'll be chucking the domestic greens altogether in favor of this wild treat.

This post was entered into the "Grow Your Own" roundup, created by Andrea's Recipes and hosted this month by House of Annie.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Target Practice

The clay pigeons of the world are mostly safe.

Last night I made my first trip to the shooting range. The range, located north of Seattle, looked as though it had been hanging on in this once-rural neighborhood for years only to have ticky-tacky suburban sprawl grow up around it like unchecked blackberry brambles. We parked in a gravel lot and piled into the clubhouse through an unmarked door carrying all our stuff. I would be borrowing John's 12-gauge while he put his newer 20-gauge to the test.

The place had a smell I recognized right away: coffee, stale cigarette smoke, oil, linoleum. The smell of men doing manly stuff. Twenty or so of these men, mostly older, milled around, many of them wearing their eye protection, ear muffs around their necks. A single woman with fashionably yellow-tinted glasses and long black hair held her own in this company. I would learn soon enough she was a pretty good shot, too.

It felt weird walking around indoors with this big shotgun but everyone had guns, of course. Guns stood in the rack, guns accompanied their owners, guns were in varying states of being put together or taken apart around the clubhouse. In one corner a guy cleaned his gun while several old-timers looked on. Must have been a nice gun. In fact, there were lots of nice guns. Competition trap-shooting guns and the like. Guns that fetched a few thousand dollars apiece.

On the wall were a few reminders of where we were: The text from Article 2 of the Bill of Rights, for instance, and something about the NRA making this all possible. A full kitchen occupied one corner and it looked as though a birthday party had just finished up, with leftover plates of cake for whoever wanted some.

We went into the next room where a man in his sixties with a white mustache worked the counter. For $13 he set me up with a box of shells and a slot in the next group of five. The call to arms came sooner than expected. "Next five, 16 yards, range one." Yikes, we were still putting together the guns—or at least John was. I haven't learned that part yet. We paraded out, guns in hand, and at that moment I couldn't be sure I even knew how to load the thing. We didn't do this sort of stuff during Hunters Ed class!

We took our positions and I fumbled with my first shell, nearly putting it in the chamber backward in my haste. A kid in an orange vest tapped my shoulder: "No loading before your turn." Miraculously I was able to pop the shell back out. Then it was my turn. "Pull," I said, trying not to sound too tentative. Click. The trigger didn't budge. I watched an orange Frisbee fly out to freedom. Ugh, my safety. One more time: "Pull." This pigeon escaped too. On my third try I winged one. It didn't explode into smithereens, but clearly a few pieces of the pigeon splintered off and it dropped to the ground. I ejected my smoking shell triumphantly in my best impression of Dirty Harry. I could definitely get used to this.

That first round would be my best. Eight for 25. My next round I shot seven for 25, and I won't even tell you how round three went. "You might have been over-thinking it," John said later. My question: How does one improve at something that requires a concentrated effort to not think about it? Anyway, the fake pigeons and the real grouse are surely safe. For now.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Go for the Gold

This past Sunday I was faced with a tough choice: catch the last two periods of the gold-medal hockey game between the U.S. and Canada or go for the golden razor clam. I went for the gold. It's almost always better to be a participant rather than an observer, don't you think? Unless we're talking about alligator rasslin' or something.

So far this season I had been shut out of razor clam openings because of scheduling conflicts. My luck was about to change. It was a perfect afternoon for a dig: partly cloudy with sunbursts, not too windy, low tide at 6:30 pm. Really, it doesn't get much better than that, not on the storm-swept shores of the North Pacific. By 4:30 the beaches started crowding with people, though not excessively so. It was still mild outside and some of the bolder clammers wore nothing but shorts and t-shirts. My friends Chris and Lori, who star in the morel hunting chapter of the book, set off down the beach with faithful hound Buddha.

Meanwhile surf clamming specialists collected first dibs as the rest of us waited for the tide to drop. This is something I want to learn, mainly because it looks so ballsy to be out there in the foam and spray digging beneath a foot or two of water. How do they even locate the shows? I don't know but there must be some secret shared by the confederacy of surf diggers. Unfortunately I forgot to get a picture of any of them. Maybe they don't even show up on film.

The rest of us used our clam guns (shovels and tubes) to score a few early clams while waiting for the drop. Then, all of sudden, the out-going tide exposed the honey holes. Shows appeared all around. Crazed digging and lots of "Over there!" and "Right behind you!" exhortations. Limits filled in minutes. It was a good crop, with many decent-sized razors and easy digging. Virtually everyone had a limit before the turn.

As I walked back to the van a line of cars and trucks sped past on the hardpan beach, people hanging out of open windows yelling and hollering and generally whooping it up. "Waaaahhhhoooooo!" a long-haired freak zinged me as his buddies hauled him away from the beach in an old Dodge wagon gone to rust. They probably had a hundred razors between them. I flashed him the thumbs-up as he rolled off down the flats. It bears repeating that human beings enjoy getting their own food from places other than the supermarket. Another gift from the sea had been gladly accepted and it was time to party.

Tempura Razor Clam Sushi

If you've spent any quality time in Jamaica, then rolling sushi ought to be second nature. If not, just practice. A bamboo roller makes it easier. How you cook the rice is key. Make sure you use sushi-grade short-grain rice and rinse it in a few changes of water before cooking. The rice should spread smoothly on a sheet of nori without becoming too gloppy.

While the rice is cooking, prep and arrange your ingredients. I've used all kinds of fish, fresh vegetables, Asian-style pickled vegetables, and other flavors and textures. The following are examples, but experiment on your own. Tempura is fun because it adds a little crunch to your sushi and a hit of that fatty goodness that only fried foods can give.

4-5 razor clams, cut in half lengthwise
tempura batter (here's a recipe)
2 cups sushi rice
seasoned rice vinegar
1 package nori
Dungeness crabmeat or other fish or shellfish*
1 small jar tobiko
1/2 cucumber
1 avocado
pickled ginger
soy sauce

* Note: As you can see from the photos, I used fake crab, known as surimi, but subsequent review of the Sustainable Sushi web site reveals that surimi is no longer considered a viable option for the sushi lover. On the other hand, Seafood Watch's Sustainable Fish Guide application for the iPhone calls it a "good alternative." This is confusing and should be sorted out.

1. Make rice. When cooked, mix in a splash of seasoned rice vinegar to taste.
2. Peel and slice cucumber into matchsticks. Cut avocado into thin slices.
3. Batter razor clams and fry in oil. Remove to paper towels.
4. Spread rice evenly on nori wrapper. Repeatedly wetting fingers in a dipping bowl makes this easier.
5. Arrange ingredients and roll. For an inside-out roll, flip rice-covered wrapper onto wax paper, rice side down.


Turns out my Canadian friends got to revel in their medal victory. But I had my own gold. We grabbed a few pints at the Porthole Pub in Ocean Shores and then made tracks back to Seattle, Winterland '73 cranked in Cora's hippie van. After enjoying a wonderful dinner recently at West Seattle's Mashiko, one of only a handful of certified sustainable sushi restaurants in the world, I had ideas for my catch: Pacific Gold, a fine rolling sushi if there ever was one.