Friday, April 30, 2010

Sichuan Dry-fried Chicken with Fiddleheads

Sichuan cuisine makes sense in Seattle. It rains here. It's gray, with chilly winds blowing in off the Sound to dampen our days. The warm flavors of Sichuan transport us to a more tropical climate. The spiciness jolts us out of our somnolence.

The other day I went to my boy's first track meet. This spring he decided he would rather run than play baseball. The meet was chaotic, bleachers groaning with parents, everyone packed into the covered area because of a steady, cold rain that penetrated to the bone. Riley placed third in the 400 and was feeling good, but over the course of the next two hours and countless other events he stiffened up and got a stomach ache. By the time they called the 800 meter he was nearly asleep in my lap. He pulled himself up and joined the other runners.

The gun sounded and Riley took off. He was easily the smallest kid in the field. Halfway around the track he made his move, taking first position at a good clip as the others fell in behind him biding their time. They rounded the halfway point and that's when I saw Riley's hand go to his stomach. He clutched at his side and I could feel the cramp spreading across my midsection too. One, two, three runners passed him. Halfway through the second lap he had fallen into last place and was clearly in pain. He jogged the final stretch as everyone waited patiently to begin the next race. I was ready for tears, to put an arm around him in the rain. But as he crossed the finish line the stands erupted into cheers and a few opposing coaches gave him high-fives.

Back home while Riley warmed up in a tub I cooked a Sichuan dinner for us. Before I could even take a picture of my plate Riley had dispatched his, even the fiddleheads. He put his chopsticks down and looked up at me. "Maybe I'll try the 50 next time."


I like Sichuan cuisine, have for a while. Until recently I didn't expect to ever actually try cooking it at home. But not too long ago I reached a point where I'd accumulated enough ingredients from other Asian recipes that I could at least make an attempt without needing to mount a full-scale invasion on my local Mekong Market. My first try was, no surprise, Kung Pao Chicken. Then I got a little fancier with a wild surf 'n' turf twist: Kung Pao Geoduck with Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms. The result was stellar.

Experience begets experience. With a well-known classic under my belt I felt ready to make a stab at some more obscure restaurant favorites. Down the street is a hole-in-the-wall Sichuanese place called, helpfully, Sichuanese Cuisine where they make a killer Dried Chicken with string beans. For my version I used Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty as a guide. Dunlop went native to learn and collect the recipes in her book, which is focused exclusively on Sichuan Province. Unlike my local, her Dry-fried Chicken isn't battered or deep-fried, but I figured the concept was similar: chicken that is toasty on the outside and with little adornment in terms of sauce, yet succulent and flavorful on the inside. Mine added fiddleheads to the mix.

I can now say that my version was definitely flavorful, though I'll need some more practice with the alchemy of Sichuan technique before I fully nail the succulent part. Rather than locking in the juices, mine just seemed dried out. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try this recipe, because like I said it was still quite tasty, and a better wok-master than myself might find that perfect balance of heat and timing to hit the bull's-eye.

The fiddleheads were my idea. I've been trying to come up with new ways to serve these cool little green scrolls that I find in the woods.

1/4 cup peanut oil
1 lb chicken breast, cut into 1-inch cubes
6-8 dried chili peppers
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
1 1/2 tbsp Sichuan chili bean paste
1 tbsp Chinese cooking wine (Shaoxing)
1 tsp dark soy sauce
1/4 tsp salt
3 scallions, chopped
2 handfuls fiddleheads, parboiled for 2 minutes
1-2 tbsp sesame oil

1. Heat peanut oil in wok over high flame until smoking, then add chicken and stir-fry several minutes to cook off most of meat's water content.
2. Reduce heat to medium, stir in dried chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns, and cook until fragrant, a couple minutes.
3. Add chili bean paste, soy sauce, wine, and salt. Continue stirring until sauce has largely cooked off and the meat is toasty on the outside, 10-15 minutes.
4. Stir in green vegetables, coating with the last of the oil, and cook together a couple minutes. Off heat stir in sesame oil before serving over rice.

Makes 2 generous portions.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dandelion Jelly

After reading Ava Chin's Urban Forager column in the New York Times the other day I was inspired to make Dandelion Jelly.

This has been in the back of my mind for a while but I always seem to have some other use for the hard-won yellow petals: bread or muffins or wine. And it's not like one just has flowers to burn (despite what my neighbors think about my "lawn"). Harvesting the petals is definitely not in the same league as plucking a few leaves for a salad or buds for an omelet. It's a commitment. Luckily I went a little overboard during my wine-making foray, collecting a cool eight cups of petals rather than the six cups the recipe called for—giving me exactly the two cups needed for Ms. Chin's recipe.

Always the pranksters, the dandelions weren't done with me yet. My unruly petals refused to submit placidly to the domestic arts. On the first go-round the jelly didn't want to set, resulting in a syrup instead. The next day I poured all the syrup back into the pot and added 4 more teaspoons of pectin. This did the trick, though I lost a significant quantity cooking down the syrup and even then I wasn't convinced it would set. But after returning from Olympia that night (which is like a trip in the Wayback Machine to the Seattle of 20 years ago, pre-tech boom, pre-Starbucks, pre-WTO but definitely not pre-grungewear or pre-dive bar...I liked it) I discovered that my measly 3/4 of a pint had set most gracefully.

The flavor is really quite wonderful. It's kind of like a gelified honey. (Did I make up that word? Apparently not.) After enjoying—no, gobbling down—my first taste of gelified honey aka dandelion jelly on an organic wheat English muffin, I felt like one of those drunken bumblebees you see in the dandelion fields. There was nothing to do but flop down and take a mid-morning nap.

Here's the recipe, with the caveat that your mileage may vary. Don't forget: pectin is your friend when it comes to Dandelion Jelly.

2 cups dandelion petals
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
2-4 tsp pectin*

* Maybe more, maybe less. This jelly operates on principles beyond our ken.

1. Bring 2 cups water to boil and add dandelions. Boil 10 minutes over medium heat.
2. Strain dandelions and return liquid to pot.
3. Add sugar, lemon, and pectin, then bring to boil again before reducing heat to a simmer. Stir with wooden spoon until syrupy. This may take little time or lots of time, depending.
4. Pour into sterilized jars, seal, and process in hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Yields about a pint.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Dandy Day in the Neighborhood

This post is featured in Volume 7 of the Good Life Report. Subscribe here.

Ray Bradbury famously waxed nostalgic about his family's love of dandelion wine. The story first appeared in Gourmet magazine and conjured a mostly lost bucolic America where everyone owned a wine press and the hated weed of today was thought of in much gentler terms. Bottled sunshine he called the tonic they made in the cellar. Even though dandelions are predominantly harvested in spring, the writing evokes thoughts of endless summer days, backyard baseball games, and kids with fishing poles riding bikes down to the local pond—the sort of stuff our current crop of post-structuralists might call a simulacra.

Sometimes I think I caught the tail end of that America in my own childhood, when there were still woodlots to roam near my family's home and fireflies lit up the nighttime sky. Now most of us live in planned communities or the city. It's paved. It's crowded. But there are still plenty of dandelions.

The other day I went looking for six cups worth of the jaunty yellow petals in order to make wine. I started in my own tiny backyard, picking every one in sight. Then the front yard and down the block. Soon I was in front of the local elementary school, where last year I struck a bonanza of dandies, but a groundskeeper had already beat me to it with his John Deere. I continued on toward busy Rainier Avenue, once the gathering arterial for Italian immigrants in Seattle. They called the Rainier Valley "Garlic Gulch" back then. Now, after several successions, it's largely Southeast Asian.

I walked through the community garden and found some beautiful bloomers. A middle-aged Laotian woman tilling her plot wanted to know what I was up to. I explained the culinary and medicinal benefits of Taraxacum officinale, how it's much more nutritious than virtually anything we can grow ourselves, and she pointed me toward a burned-out husk of a house down the block. She told me an involved story about the fire and how her people wanted to help the owner rebuild but instead he was sitting on his hands. "He lazy but he good man," she said. "I tell him you pick there." This seemed like a legitimate enough invitation to me.

Indeed it was a dandy heaven. When not molested by the mower, dandelions grow tall and robust, angling their Cheshire Cat grins toward the solar life-force. I picked the front and then slipped around back, which is where Dandelion Nirvana truly opened up before me. There was an abandoned car and a loud autobody shop on the other side of the fence. A black cat prowled a hedgerow. This yard hadn't been attended to in years! It was a sea of warm, inviting yellow.

I must have lost myself in the picking, because when I looked up I saw an old man sitting on the back stoop pulling a Budweiser out of a paper bag. It was 11 in the morning, and I decided this was a fairly valid maneuver on such an unseasonably hot April day. I picked my way over to him. He offered me the other can of beer in the bag, which I accepted.

"You police?"

No, I assured him, I was not. He was Laotian, too. His name was In Keow and he was 69 years old. Though the language barrier between us was tough, we persevered. His grandfather had once owned this home, he said. Next door lived a Vietnamese man. He said he was retired, that he had worked very hard, and that he would still work—but only for cash, no check. He was adamant about this last point. We sipped our beers in the hot morning sun.

In Keow was amused by my stoop labor in the dandelion patch. He had social security arriving once a month and some other unspecified payouts. Making wine—and spending hours plucking little dandelion petals to do it—was definitely not on his agenda. "I go to store,"he said proudly. "I buy beer." As for me, I wasn't about to argue with that logic. Springtime in America has never quite been what they say it used to be.

To make a simple Dandelion Wine, I followed the instructions of Pattie Vargas and Rich Gulling in Making Wild Wines & Meads. Combine 6 cups dandelion petals, 1 lb raisins, 2 lbs sugar, 1 tbsp acid blend, and 1 gallon boiling water into sanitized bucket. A day later mix a starter culture of 1 1/2 cups orange juice, 1 tsp yeast nutrient, and 1 package wine yeast in a jar, shake it up, and let it sit until bubbly, one to three hours. Pour starter culture into the vat along with 1 tsp pectic enzyme and loosely cover. Rack after three days into air-locked container, then rack again three months later and bottle. Wait another six months—until the depths of gloomy winter—to enjoy a taste of bottled sunshine.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Laksa: One Word, One Pot, One Heckuva Meal

Ten years ago Marty and I traveled to Borneo, with stops in mainland Malaysia and Singapore. Besides trekking through primeval rainforest, watching a pageant of colorful songbirds from high up in the canopy, and hanging out with endangered orangutans in their diminishing habitat, we also ate bowlfuls of the region's signature one-pot meal.

Laksa is thought to be the centuries-old creation of Chinese traders living in Malaysia. The country has long been a crossroads for a variety of Asian cultures. Ethnic Malays, Chinese, and Indians make up the bulk of the population, and their representative cuisines intermingle to give Malaysia a wide-ranging national menu. It's only just, then, that Laksa has gone on to be much more than a Malaysian specialty. Versions of it are found all over Southeast Asia—indeed, all over the world, with those determined globetrotters the Australians particularly enamored of it. Within Malaysia itself there are countless variations, from the slightly sour tamarind-based Sarawak style found on Borneo to the rich coconut "Curry Mee" of Penang.

In fact, trying to sort out the many variations and their devoted adherents is a trip down the rabbit hole that I don't intend to make. The important thing to know is that Laksa is delicious, many-layered, and filling. (Apparently the name Laksa translates as "ten thousand"; whether this refers to the number of ingredients in the paste or the amount of condiments required is unspecified.) In its most basic form, Laksa is a curry-like soup ladled over noodles. Chicken along with seafood such as shrimp and squid are the most common meats added to the pot. In parts of Malaysia and elsewhere a type of cockle called the blood cockle (because it bleeds red) is considered an essential ingredient, as is congealed pig's blood. Other typical ingredients include fried tofu puffs and the usual pho-style garnishes: basil, Vietnamese mint, lime, bean sprouts, and so on.

I rediscovered Laksa while contemplating my haul of cockles the other day. The cockle is something of a problem mollusk. It has great flavor but it can also be tough and chewy—and its stomach of dark green half-digested algae is definitely not a turn-on for most diners. I usually chop up cockles for chowders. Grinding for Clam Cakes is another possibility.

While searching for new cockle recipes online, I stumbled upon a reminiscence of eating hawker Laksa in Singapore. The island city-state of Singapore off the southern tip of the Malay peninsula is known for its "street hawker" food. One can spend a lifetime roaming the markets and stalls and sampling an ever-changing parade of Laksa, with no two bowls tasting quite the same. Unfortunately, I only had 24 hours in this food-lover's paradise, though it was enough to know I will be back. The hawker Laksa reference sent me on a bit of wild hare, both down memory lane and through the Internet's culinary matrix, until my head was dizzy with possibilities. In the end I decided to try my hand at the dish with no single recipe but rather a cherry-picking of ingredients and methods. Certainly you can make all sorts of substitutions and additions. This is merely a start.

Laksa Paste

First you need Laksa paste. If you're in a hurry you can always buy a jar of pre-mixed paste, but part of the fun is the mad scientist approach to mixing and matching an odd assortment of ingredients found at your local Asian market. Combine the following in a food processor and whir until finely blended:

3 shallots, peeled
3 hearts of lemon grass (the lower white part)
5 hot red chilies, stemmed and seeded to taste
4 slices of galangal
1 thumb ginger, peeled
5 cloves garlic
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
1/2 red bell pepper
2 tsp shrimp paste
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp paprika
4 tbsp peanut oil

Add more peanut oil if necessary. The red bell pepper is my addition. I like its sweetness and it lends a richer, warmer color to the final product. Refrigerate leftover paste in a glass jar.

Laksa for 4

1 cup Laksa paste
2 tbsp peanut oil
4-5 cups stock or water
1 can coconut cream (or less)
2 dozen cockles, shelled, cleaned, and cut into bite-size portions
1 dozen shrimp, shelled (reserve shells)
1 package fried tofu puffs, cut into cubes
1 lb rice noodle and/or egg noodle, cooked
garnish: Thai basil, Vietnamese mint, cilantro, green onion, bean sprouts, lime wedges, diced peppers, chopped peanuts, fried shallot

1. Saute reserved shrimp shells in peanut oil over medium heat until slightly browned; remove with slotted spoon. Next add paste and cook, stirring, a few minutes, careful not to burn.
2. Raise heat and add stock (I used chicken), bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer several minutes.
3. Stir in coconut cream. Add cockles, shrimp, and tofu. Simmer another few minutes until shellfish are done.
4. Divide noodles into bowls. Ladle soup over noodles and garnish.

Lastly, prepare to enroll in 12-step Laksa addiction center.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Steamed Clams in Herbed Wine Sauce

Budget travel need not be an endless repetition of stale motels and dubious road food. One of the great pleasures of learning how to forage is finding a noteworthy meal far from home and for little expense. Earlier this month I reported on the White Bass Tacos to be had near Fayetteville, Arkansas. Last summer, in Utah's Dinosaur National Monument, we doctored ham and cheese sandwiches with wild watercress from a patch that very well may have fed outlaw Butch Cassidy while on the run.

A commercial forager once told me that wherever he goes, he always pays for his gas. What he meant is that he always brings home a wild delicacy that makes the trip, no matter how banal, worthwhile—and in his case it literally pays for the gas when he sells it.

The other day found me on the Olympic Peninsula, where I gave a talk to the OP Mycological Society, a spirited group of foragers if there ever was one. The next day I took my time driving back to the ferry. I had driven this road before but I wouldn't call it familiar territory. Just the same, wild foods announced themselves at every turn. While I could have loaded up on any number of wild greens, it was the shellfish I wanted most of all. The tide was right so I pulled into a public tidelands.

The place was lousy with food. I could have nabbed rock crabs, horse clams, oysters, or any number of seaweed varieties. Since I had my three-clawed garden scratcher in the car, I decided to dig a quick limit of cockles and littleneck clams. I ate the littlenecks that night with Ruby, who knows a thing or two about clams. I've made all kinds of meals with steamed littlenecks: Linguini alle Vongole, in Red Thai Curry, with Black Bean Sauce. This time I decided on a very traditional approach: wine, aromatics, and a touch of cream.

2 dozen littleneck clams, in the shell
1-2 tbsp butter
1/2 cup yellow onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
scant 1/4 cup thinly sliced fennel
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup white wine
handful mixed fresh herbs, chopped (e.g. thyme, oregano, parsley, chives, tarragon)
1/4 cup cream

1. Scrub clams thoroughly.
2. Melt butter in skillet over medium heat. Saute onion until soft. Stir in garlic, fennel, and bay leaf; cook for a few minutes.
3. De-glaze with wine. Raise heat to high and add clams and herbs. Cover and steam until clams open.
4. Stir in cream, remove from heat, and serve immediately with good bread.

Serves 2 as small meal or appetizers.

Perhaps more pleasurable than the clams themselves was the sight of my daughter chowing down on a wild fruit of the sea that most kids turn up their noses at.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fiddlehead Frittata

On the trail the other day I came upon an elderly Korean couple with full bags of fiddleheads and devil's club buds. They looked a little guilty clutching their haul, probably because the rules about foraging in state parks are ambiguous and rarely posted, and my interest might have struck them as of a vaguely law enforcement nature. Then I emptied my pockets and revealed my own small stash of fiddleheads gleaned along the way.

Big smiles now. The Koreans were surprised that someone of my age and ethnicity knew about the hidden delicacies in the woods. It's true that most of the foragers I encounter tend to be older first-generation immigrants. As I say in the book in the squid-jigging chapter, foraging comes natural to such folks. They foraged in their native countries and see no reason not to forage in their new adoptive homes. In many cases they find far less competition, as Americans are too busy porking out at the usual fast food drive-thrus.

You can read more about foraging and cooking fiddleheads here.

I decided on the Fiddlehead Frittata mainly because I like the alliterative sound of it. If you had asked me yesterday what I thought about frittatas in general, I would not have put myself in the camp that is absolutely nuts for this Italian staple, though I might have given an appreciative nod to its simplicity as well as the long-standing tradition of saving a few wedges for later. But now, after chowing down on today's Fiddlehead Frittata for lunch, I can safely say it's a thing of awe-inspiring beauty. I also got lucky in the choices I made: the slight bitterness of the fiddleheads was balanced nicely by the sweetness of the caramelized onions and the bright flavors of the herbs, in particular the sage.

Like so much of the cooking I do, the frittata is rustic country fare—peasant food, as they say. It fits right in with my love of chowders and stews and casseroles. I'll be making more in the future.

2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup fiddleheads, cleaned and blanched in boiling water for a few minutes
1 onion, chopped
6 eggs
3 tbsp heavy cream
1 handful fresh herbs, chopped
1/2 cup mozzarella, grated
1/4 cup parmesan, grated
salt and pepper, to taste

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. On stove top over medium heat add oil to 10-inch non-stick, oven-proof skillet. Saute onions for a few minutes, then add fiddleheads. Cook for several more minutes, until onions begin to caramelize and fiddleheads are tender.

2. Whisk together eggs, cream, and your favorite herbs. I used thyme, oregano, parsley, and sage. Add grated mozzarella to mixture.

3. Reduce stove to medium. Pour egg mixture into skillet, tilting pan slightly to insure even distribution. Cook until eggs have firmly set on the bottom, 5 or 6 minutes.

4. Sprinkle parmesan on top and finish cooking in the oven, several more minutes.

5. Remove skillet from oven, allow to cool for a minute or two, then slide frittata onto large serving dish (or cover pan with dish and invert if easier, but remember to flip frittata back over or cheese will run off). Cut into wedges and serve.

Serves 4.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Salad Days

The salad days are here again. Now is the time to take advantage of all the fresh new growth bursting with the sun's energy. If you're in California, the salad days have been on for a while; in the Great Lakes region you're just off the block. Wherever you are, enjoy those early greens. They were important—sometimes life-saving—for our ancestors and should be just as revered by modern Homo sapiens.

Want to commit a radical act? Step outside your back door and pick some weeds for the table. That's a metaphorical rock through the window of Big Ag and a first step toward putting our hopelessly effed-up food system on notice. As I've mentioned in numerous posts, many of the weeds we spend countless hours and dollars trying to eradicate are actually more nutritious than the stuff we grow on purpose. Think wild, think local, think seasonal. Think for yourself. You don't need some massive head of corporate-sanctioned lettuce from the supermarket to get your greens on.

Today's salad includes a mesclun-like mix of tender young greens: Dandelion, cat's-ear, chickweed, and bittercress. The rest is miner's lettuce, a native plant in my region. All are tasty and nutritious.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Bass Master

Going native is a time-honored tradition. What’s more fun—traveling as a tourist or blending in with the locals? I choose the latter.

Which is why a sweltering spring morning in Goshen, Arkansas, found me hanging around on the limestone banks of the White River with a bunch of good ol' boys and even more first generation immigrants, a cheap spinning rod in my hand. I was there to go bassin’.

Middle American rivers and reservoirs emptying into the Mississippi mark the pan fisherman’s Mecca. You’ve got catfish, crappies, sunfish, perch, and several varieties of bass, all vying for the pan, all tasting exceptional when fried up fresh. In my younger years, when I first discovered the pleasures of trout on a fly and its attendant rituals, I pitied the bassmasters with their jon boats and fish-finders and trucker caps. They struck me as an antediluvian species, as antiquated as the country store.

Well, these days as we drive the endless strip (getting longer every year) waiting for pavement to give way to dirt and for fast food joints to give way to fishing holes, don’t we all yearn for the dusty commerce of the country store once again? And so it is with the bassmaster, who is the backbone of angling in America. McGuane is right: When the trout are lost it's surely time to smash the state. But when there are no more bass and no more bass fishermen we will have finally screwed the pooch once and for all.

Luckily for me my spring break with the in-laws in Fayetteville just happened to coincide with a great annual tradition for bassmasters across the tick and chigger-infested interior: the running of the white bass. There are bigger bass and there are tastier bass; rarely do you encounter a more prolific bass. The limit in Arkansas is 25 per day. Morone chrysops looks like a smaller version of its cousin the striped bass. Males are smaller than females, usually weighing under a pound; females, which follow the males upriver, might push five pounds, though a two-pounder like this one my boy caught is considered large.

I stumbled upon the white bass fishery by accident while scouting for morels. Crossing the Twin Bridges where Richland Creek empties into the White River I couldn't help but pull over to see why so many trucks and cars lined the road. A guy with a stringer loaded with fish and a big grin clued me in. We walked down to the water's edge to see the commotion. Anglers were hauling in fish up and down the banks. "This ain't nothin'," said one elderly man in a canoe. "At the peak it's every cast." The fish pour out of Beaver Lake impoundment on their spawning run like an angry horde, chasing each other around the riffles, slashing at lures, and putting their fierce dispositions on generous display. I talked to a few knowledgeable bassers with the heftiest stringers. Crawfish, they advised, and rubber minnow jigs. I was back the next day.

Fish Tacos

That night we made fish tacos at my brother-in-law’s place. Filleting out 15 bass was a bit of a chore for this bassmaster-in-training. Bass are bonier than the trout and salmon I’m used to, although the concept is similar. I thought about Mexico while working the fillet knife.

The best fish tacos I ever ate were prepared beachside on the Baja while a bunch of us attempted to surf our hangovers away during a bachelor party weekend. Despite the gulf's promise of renewal, one by one we washed up on the beach feeling more unsteady than when we started, lured by the thought of stable ground and the smell of fish tacos cooked right on the spot over a camp stove. This has been my template ever since. If you try to complicate the matter, you’ll miss the point. Fish tacos should be a perfect blend of white-fleshed fish, warm tortillas, and piquant salsa. Nothing more. The preparation was so simple I’m almost embarrassed to repeat it here, but if you’ve never made your own fish tacos before it’s something you should do—so here are the basics.

1. Make a simple salsa. For instance, chop together 2 large tomatoes, 1 small red onion, 1 clove of garlic, a half-cup of cilantro, and a hot pepper. Adjust amounts to taste. Squeeze in a half lime and season generously with salt. Set aside to marry.
2. Heat flour tortillas wrapped in foil.
3. Dredge fish fillets in seasoned flour and fry in butter over medium heat until flaky.

That’s it. Now make your tacos, garnish with hot sauce, drink a refreshing beer—and think about going native.