Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Elderflower Syrup

My new bumper sticker: I brake for champagne cordials.

The other day while taking Hank and Holly on a mushroom odyssey I surprised a few drivers behind me in a curvy stretch of canyon by yanking my van off the road at speed and coming to a dusty stop in the dirt. A flat? Sudden engine trouble? Naw, I just happened to spy the creamy white flowers of a blue elderberry tree on the roadside.

The blue elderberry (Sambucus caerulea) is a prolific bloomer on the east slope of the Cascades where it inhabits canyons, hillsides, and farm country, often near water. River corridors are a good place to look for this variety up and down the West Coast. Other varieties are common across the continental U.S. and throughout much of the temperate and sub-tropical world.

Last year I made elderberry syrup. This year I wanted to catch the flowering so I could make an equally distinctive though more delicate concoction. The thick berry syrup goes great with yogurt and ice cream; the flower variety is perfect for a refreshing summer drink or, even better, to enliven a sparkling flute of prosecco.

Everyone has their own preferred method for making the syrup, but besides the addition of exotic ingredients the main difference is the time you allow the flowers to steep. I used Hank's recipe as a guide, eschewing the citric acid (two lemons seemed plenty, and anyway I'd used up my stash of citric acid on Dandelion Wine earlier this spring) and, in a happy accident, steeped my flowers for five days instead of two or three. The extra time only strengthened the subtle flavor without having any funky side effects, though you might exercise caution in really hot locales.

Definitely use a cheese cloth when straining your liquid. It's an unavoidable fact that little critters like to make their homes in eldflower clusters. The recipe below makes about a quart of syrup. I canned two half-pints and refrigerated the other pint. It will be interesting to see if the canning process had any effect on the delicate flavor.

20 large elderflower clusters
1 quart water
4 cups sugar
Juice of 2 lemons
Zest of 2 lemons

1. Trim flowers into a large bowl and try to remove as much of the stem as possible (most of the elderberry tree other than the flowers and berries is toxic). Rolling the flowers between thumb and forefinger is a good way to separate stem from flower. Continue to pick through flower pile, removing as many little stems as possible.

2. Add lemon zest and juice to bowl.

3. Bring quart of water and sugar to boil, stirring to make sure sugar is well dissolved.

4. Pour liquid over flower and lemon mixture. Stir.

5. Cover bowl with a kitchen towel and allow elderflowers to steep for 5 days.

6. Strain through cheese cloth and fine mesh strainer. Refrigerate syrup or process in hot water bath for 10 minutes.


Third photo by www.heyserphoto.com

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Little Pigs of Spring

As feared, the sudden warming trend in my region caused a massive blowout of spring porcini ("little pigs" in Italian) at the lower elevations. I know you PacNor'westers have been craving sun and wondering if summer would ever show its face, but the same weather patterns that conspired to make this an epic morel year have put the kibbosh on our spring kings. Some of my patches haven't produced at all this year while others are putting out a fraction of their usual production—and now one of my best patches is a worm-riddled mess.

Such conditions test the mushroom hunter. My advice: Know your habitat. Identify microclimates that will fare better in off years. As always, try to catch the vanguard of the first flush at a given elevation. I picked this one patch for the last three weeks. Week One, when I would have expected a good fruiting, only a few scattered buttons showed, amounting to maybe five pounds. Week Two, which I'll write about more in depth in a moment, saw more of the same, with the buttons still trying to pop, a ten-pound day. Now I'm remembering those first two weeks fondly. Yesterday, Week Three, was my third trip to the same patch. The last few days we've become reacquainted with that shy fireball in the sky and I had an inkling of what I might find. Sure enough, porcini littered the woods, poundage of it, old flags and young buttons alike wormed out beyond repair. It was a sad affair. I picked about 30 pounds, maybe a tenth of what I saw, and of that three-quarters went either straight into the dryer or into the garbage.

Mushroom hunters live by the weather and suffer by it.

David Aurora says the spring kings (Boletus rex-veris) fruit in most of the mountain ranges west of the Rockies, including the northern Sierra, Cascades, and Blues. As far as I know there are no records of spring porcini in the coastal mountains. They seem to require drier conditions. In the Cascades we only find them on the eastern slopes, usually when the trilliums have turned from white to purple and the morels are tailing off.

With all varieties of porcini, I look for the heavier timber, particularly true firs and spruce. The sort of cutover and abused landscapes in which morels flourish don't seem as fruitful for the boletes, and this is one of the reasons I enjoy hunting porcini even more than morels. A day of not finding porcini is still a beautiful hike on the sunny side of the mountains. I've seen lots of wildlife while looking for spring kings, from big bucks to angry goshawks. The other day at dusk I watched a fox saunter across a logging road and into the woods as if taking an evening stroll. He could have worn a sweater vest and I wouldn't have been surprised in the least.

This year I had the pleasure of introducing my Sacramento friends Hank Shaw and Holly Heyser to porcini hunting. You might know them for their excellent, award-winning blogs, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook and NorCal Cazadora. Hank and Holly spend a lot of time in the bush with a shotgun or rifle at the ready, so mushroom hunting was an instant hit. So much is the same: the need to understand habitat and ecosystems; a willingness to slow down and allow the natural world to inform you; the thrill of the chase; and the addiction that springs from that first brush with success.

We visited a few of my regular spots and it was clear that the season was way behind schedule. Areas that would normally sport lots of flags by now—blown-out and maggot-ridden porcini that tell you you're in the right place—were just beginning to produce little buttons hiding under the duff. These buttons, sometimes called "mushrumps" by pot hunters, are known as #1's to commercial foragers because they're graded the highest on the desirability scale and earn the most money. They're firm, with caps that haven't fully opened up and white or grey pores. These are the ones to slice thinly and eat fresh with a salad. Unlike most wild mushrooms, young porcini can be eaten uncooked in small amounts. The flavor is quite a bit different this way, and surprisingly un-fungal.

That night in camp we ended up garnishing a salad of wild violets with fresh porcini and a simple dressing of olive oil and chinese rice wine. We cooked up Italian sausages in water infused with fir tips along with a saute of onions, green peppers, morels, and porcini. The finished dish was simple the way camping fare ought to be, yet bursting with the sort of local and seasonal ingredients you find in fine restaurants. Luckily for Hank and me, for dessert I only brought a small bottle of whiskey, so the next morning we were up and at 'em again.

When I got home with my catch I decided to imitate a dish I'd had at the Herbfarm the night before our porcini outing. This was my first visit to one of the Northwest's most celebrated restaurants and all I can say is the nine-course meal with accompanying wine flights was truly awesome. Our host Ron Zimmerman is no namby-pamby on the pour either. (Next time we'll book a room at the Inn.) Marty called it the single best meal of her life. I decided it was in my top two of all time, neck-and-neck with last holiday's pilgrimage to Eleven Madison in New York. But the Herbfarm surpassed that renowned eatery at the local angle, with scrupulous attention paid to seasonal ingredients from nearby places.

For my home-cooked version of an Herbfarm dish, I roasted porcini two ways. I chopped up the stems and caps of a few larger, soft-fleshed specimens to make a sauce, and also thinly sliced a couple buttons for the garnish. The sauce I ladled on the plate and topped with a fillet of wild Alaskan chinook and sauteed fava beans; the roasted porcini buttons decorated the dish.

Roasted Porcini Sauce

This is a good use for those larger, floppier kings that have gone soft in the flesh. Usually such specimens are bug-infested, and even decent ones are only suitable as dryers, but occasionally you find mature boletes with yellow pores that have somehow avoided the flies. These are perfect for making sauce.

1 lb porcini, cleaned and cut into small cubes
1 handful dried porcini
olive oil
several sprigs fresh thyme, chopped
several springs fresh oregano, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
chicken stock (optional)
salt and pepper

1. Reconstitute dried porcini in 1 cup warm water. Set aside for 30 minutes. When ready, wring out excess water back into container and reserve mushroom stock for later.

2. Saute shallot and garlic in a couple tablespoons of olive oil until soft. Stir in both fresh and reconstituted porcini. Cook, stirring, several minutes until lightly browned, using more olive oil if necessary. Add fresh herbs, a few grindings of pepper, and a generous amount of salt and cook another minute.

3. Deglaze with wine. I used a Riesling to get a sweeter edge. When wine is mostly cooked off, slowly add mushroom stock.

4. Blend mixture with an immersion blender (or use a food processor). Finish with chicken stock (optional) to desired consistency.

Wild Salmon with Favas and Roasted Porcini Sauce

For the final plate you'll want to broil a good cut of wild salmon (10 minutes per inch of thickness), roast a button or two of prime, thinly-sliced porcini, and saute the favas. I roasted my porcini in a cast iron skillet with olive oil, a couple smashed cloves of garlic, and a few rough-cut springs of thyme, plus seasoning. When I'd gotten a nice browning on both sides I tossed in a pat of butter and let it foam in the pan, then removed the porcini to a bowl. I quickly sauteed the favas in the same pan as the salmon finished, then arranged all the elements on the plate. Seasonal goodness.

I've written numerous posts about spring porcini. Click these links for:

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Morel Madness

Sometimes Marty thinks I dreamed up this whole Fat of the Land thing so I'd have an excuse to spend more time outdoors. I'm not going to argue with that theory. Seems like I've been logging more nights in the woods lately than at home. As a result, here at FOTL headquarters we're way behind on bringing you the latest adventures in the field and in the kitchen.

The cool, wet spring has produced an epic morel mushroom year in the Pacific Northwest—and I've been only too happy to harvest my share. Flush after flush of naturals keeps flooding the mountains, with multiple flushes sometimes at the same elevation. I'm finding so many naturals that I'm not even bothering to work the burns. The dryer is running overtime. In fact, I had to upgrade my homemade system to a store-bought Nesco dehydrator to handle the volume. Good times.

Over the Memorial Day weekend we went looking for sun, camping on the far eastern flank of the Cascades in what is high desert badlands. It was one of those classic Northwest beer commercials as we assembled for this group shot in down jackets and other winter gear. Even in desert canyons you can find an oasis of wild foods. We came upon on a large patch of miner's lettuce that provided our salad greens for the weekend, and closer to the pass we went on a family hike and found morels in abundance on the elk trails.

Our friends Tip and Bridget whumped up a killer morel pasta dinner. I don't have the exact details but it went something like this: chopped red onion and morels sauteed in butter, deglazed with red wine, finished with fresh sage and heavy cream and tossed with parmesan and fettucini.

The following weekend proved just as bountiful as we moved up in elevation to find the freshest morels. At one point I stumbled on a blowdown and figured there had to be a morel or two. Sure enough, one after another pointed me up the slope until I realized an area smaller than a football field was loaded with more than a hundred of the sneaky fellers.

There's always a catch. The weather has been a boon to morels but our spring king season is looking like a bust. The boletes need warmth to pop. This year they're a couple weeks late and I'm afraid the main flush will happen all at once and then the season will quickly wind down with a crop of wormed-out porcini. Luckily I managed to harvest a bunch at the very beginning. More on that in my next post.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bracken Fern: To Eat or Not To Eat?

The other day I ate a known carcinogen—a juicy char-grilled burger. I'm not alone in my cancer-baiting, certainly not this time of year when hamburgers and hotdogs are mainstays of the backyard barbecue.

But to eat a handful of stir-fried bracken fern is to seemingly court disaster in some quarters. You see, bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) is also known to contain carcinogens, specifically a substance called ptaquiloside. Never mind that bracken has been a food staple of Native Americans for centuries if not millennia, or that the Japanese also have a yen for this common fern and consider it a delicacy of spring. In fact, we might just call out these two populations on purpose, since studies have suggested their higher rates of intestinal cancer could be linked to bracken.

On the other hand, there are plenty who are suspicious of inconclusive studies and the advice of nutritionists. In his book Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants, Steve Brill says: "I wouldn't be afraid of eating reasonable quantities of wild [bracken] fiddleheads during their short season." And on his web site, Florida forager Green Deane says: "I think nearly everything causes cancer and I am willing to risk a few fiddleheads with butter once or twice a spring, which is about as often as I can collect enough in this warm place."

What to do?

I've been avoiding bracken for years because of these studies, but in the end I'd heard enough positive reports from trusted sources that I decided to give the fern a try. I'm not planning to eat huge quantities of bracken anytime soon, but to banish this ancient food from the table strikes me as equally rash.

Most of us have seen bracken before. It's a hardy fern that sometimes covers acres of land. Generally it emerges later in spring than other fern species. Its fiddleheads—if they can be called that, since they hardly resemble the typical fiddlehead form of the ostrich or lady fern—are claw-shaped, like a hawk that's squeezing its fist around around an unlucky mouse. Collect bracken when it's still tightly coiled, about six to eight inches in length; the picture above shows a specimen that is just slightly past its prime for the pot.

How I Cooked My Bracken

My friend Jon Rowley passed along these instructions from Seattle's premier sushi chef, who serves bracken at his eponymous restaurant, Shiro's.

Salt a pot of water generously and bring it to boil. Stir in the bracken, kill the heat, and allow the water to cool. This will take a little while. Next wash off the bracken under cool running water before serving. For my dish I gave the bracken an additional stir-fry with spring porcini mushrooms, a little ground pork, and splashes of sesame oil, soy sauce, and Chinese cooking wine (Xiaoxing).

The flavor is delicate. I liken it to the taste of kale or chard in the package of thin asparagus.

So what about you? Do you eat bracken or have an opinion about its edibility or lack thereof? I'd like to hear from you.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Sichuan Fish-Fragrant Geoduck with Morels

The gloves are off here at FOTL headquarters and we're pumping a fist for that old favorite, surf 'n' turf. Again. Yeah, I know we've already gone a few rounds with this theme before: You'll remember my Kung Pao Geoduck with Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms and my X-Country Double Lobster Risotto. Now behold Sichuan Geoduck with Morels. And if anyone utters the "A" word—y'know, authenticity, or lack thereof—well, there might be a fight.

You hear that word a lot in online chat rooms about food and restaurants, where it's usually thrown around by the guy who's been to [insert exotic city here] thank you very much and knows a thing or three about how the real native people cook and eat. This character spots inauthenticity all around, no matter how artfully camouflaged. Can you imagine what the English language would be like if it was held captive by the authenticity police? The OED wouldn't require a magnifying glass, that's for sure.

So with that preamble out of the way, I give you my take on the Sichuan classic "Fish-Fragrance," except mine doesn't use pork or any other common meat—it uses the sliced body meat of the famous geoduck clam, on this occasion the three-pounder I helped dig up last week. And rather than fungi common to China such as cloud ear mushroms it uses the beautiful morels I found the other day on the eastern slope of Washington State's Cascade Mountains, not to mention tender, thin spears of Yakima Valley asparagus.

You won't be seeing this dish on any menus and as to its claim to Sichuan...um...authenticity, I'll leave that to you dear reader, but to paraphrase the Seinfeld character without the boob job: "It was real—and it was spectacular!"

For my guide I used Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty and her recipe for Fish-Fragrant Pork Slivers, with some changes. Dunlop says the "so-called fish-fragrant flavor is one of Sichuan's most famous culinary creations, and it epitomizes the Sichuanese love for audacious combinations of flavors." As to where the fish fragrance comes from, since the dish uses nary a fish product in its marinade or sauce, she suggests that the name evokes a cultural memory of traditional Sichuanese fish cookery, so that when other ingredients are prepared in the same way they instantly recall the taste of fish.

1 geoduck body (minus siphon), thinly sliced
1/2 lb morels, quartered
1/2 lb asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 can bamboo shoots
peanut oil
2 tbsp chili bean paste
1 1/2 tsp minced garlic
2 tsp minced ginger
2 scallions (green part only), thinly sliced


1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp soy sauce
1 1/2 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp cold water
1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine


1 1/2 tsp white sugar
1 1/2 tsp black Chinese vinegar
3/4 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/8 tsp cornstarch
3 tbsp chicken stock (or water)

1. Marinate the geoduck. Place sliced clam in bowl and stir in one marinade ingredient after another, stirring in one direction to combine. Refrigerate.

2. Combine sauce ingredients in a small bowl.

3. Heat 1/4 cup peanut oil in seasoned wok over high flame. When oil begins to smoke, add morels and asparagus (minus tops), stir-frying 3-4 minutes.

4. Push morels and asparagus to one side and add sliced geoduck clam, stir-frying for another minute or two. Push aside with morels and asparagus and add chili paste to wok. Stir-fry paste briefly until red and fragrant, then add garlic, ginger, and asparagus tops and mix everything together. Stir-fry 30 seconds before adding bamboo shoots, then stir-fry another 30 seconds.

5 Stir the sauce in its bowl and pour into wok, stirring. Toss with scallions and serve over rice.

We drank a bottle of Eroica Riesling, which paired well with the multi-faceted flavors of the dish.