Friday, May 27, 2011

The Great Boyne City National Morel Festival

To hear five-time national morel hunting champion Tony Williams tell it, the bold idea of calling Boyne City, Michigan's, tribute to everything Morchella a national festival was easy. No one else had one. Certainly not 51 years ago when it was first hatched.

The hunting contest itself was born in a bar.  “Guys were arguing,"explained Tony (pictured with the rustic furniture he builds). "It was a bar fight! A group of about twenty met in the morning to settle it. One of them was a Lion’s Club member. They said, ‘We should organize this for the city. Nobody else is doing it, so let’s call it the National Morel Mushroom Festival.’” 

A half century later, the National Morel Mushroom Festival attracts aficionados, fanatics, and the merely curious to Lake Charlevoix's scenic shore to learn about morels, eat them in quantity, and even—should they be so inclined—purchase a few giant chain-saw replicas to decorate the front lawn.

This is bucolic country, a photogenic trip back to an older, more innocent America, with rolling hills of leafy hardwoods, neat geometric agricultural plots, and farm houses dotting the countryside. The city itself is a small if fairly bustling burg of restaurants, galleries, and shops, a place that does much of its business in the summertime—with a head start in mid-May thanks to the morel fest.

I've been following the festival from afar for a number of years now, and finding myself in the northern woods of Michigan this May to visit friends in Marquette, I just had to make the four-hour trip downstate—as the Yoopers would say—to check it out. I was also hoping to see the sort of morels that are typical in the Midwest but less common where I live.

Like the Pacific Northwest, midwestern morel hunters find natural black morels, which are usually the first true morels to flush in the Great Lakes region each spring. But after the blacks fruit they also find a confusing variety of species commonly called grays, whites, and yellows. Some of these might be the same species at different stages of growth; others look suspiciously similar to what we sometimes call Morchella esculenta.

So I entered the contest and boarded a yellow school bus on a drizzly Saturday morning. What better way to see for myself? With a flashing police escort, we drove out of town to a predetermined secret spot a half-hour away near Chandler Hill. Each contestant signed a clip board so the bus driver could count heads on the way back. "Two or three people got lost in the woods last year," someone in the front said. On our bus we had morel hunters from Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, and even North Carolina. On another bus there was a couple of South Korean women and a mycologist from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

I happened to be seated next to a local writer, Mary Ellen Geist, author of Measure of the Heart. Mary Ellen warned me that I better be ready to hit the woods at a full gallop because these hunters were serious. Sure, sure, I said. I'll be ready. My main concern was getting some photos of the action.

With that in mind I tried to identify likely experts—camo clothing, trucker hats, and a sneaking caginess were all part of my criteria—to follow into the woods for a photo-op. But then, moments after stepping off the bus, a bullhorn siren blared and everyone took off in a mad, cutthroat dash for the woods. I was still fiddling with the settings on my camera! Even Mary Ellen, who I figured could be my guide in a pinch, was last seen high-stepping through raspberry brambles on her way out of sight.

I wandered into the forest nearly last, fumbling with the camera and realizing I'd left my compass behind.

First impressions? I was a long way from Cle Elum. These great northern woods aren't like the east slope of the Cascades. Where's the topography? I wondered. How do you pick out landmarks? Without a map and compass I was feeling uncertain about my ability to roam at will. I found some kids and stuck close by, snapping pictures. They were in their mid-teens, from Ontario, and had been allowed to hunt by themselves for the first time this year. "My dad was champion a few years ago," one of them bragged. They weren't really sure where they were. "If we get lost dad's gonna kill us."

As any mushroom hunter knows, morels don't obey the laws of human commerce. This year they were late. The assembled hunters pulled mostly "caps" from the underbrush, the related Verpa bohemica mushrooms (pictured) that look somewhat like morels. Caps are fair game in the contest even if most people don't eat them, and good thing—otherwise most of the contestants would have scored a big goose egg, including me.

Knowing your trees is an important part of morel hunting wherever you are, but especially in the Midwest. Old apple trees, dying or dead elms, and ash trees are good producers. In Northern Michigan the ashes seemed to be the ticket, and I spoke with many experienced hunters who said they'll pick out ash trees from afar and walk—or in the the case of the contest, run—directly toward them. The older the ash the better, with clusters of them being even better yet. Notice the diamond-like patterning of the ash bark at right. Tony Williams can pick out ash trees by the lime-green color of their new leaves from miles away.

This year's contest winner ended up picking something like 342 mushrooms in 90 minutes, of which only 40 or 50 were true morels. The record is held by Tony, with nearly 800 mushrooms picked during two consecutive 90-minute contests in the mid-eighties.

Like almost everyone else in the the hunt, yours truly didn't find a single true morel, just caps. Per usual when I travel, my timing was just a bit off, like maybe 48 hours off. More about that in a moment. After boarding the buses and returning to town, the next eagerly anticipated event was the Taste of Morels, in which local restaurants cook up a bite to eat and compete for top honors. My personal favorites (though I didn't get to taste everything) were Red Mesa Grill's Corn Cakes with Morel Cream Sauce, which placed third, and Cafe Sante's Duck Onion Soup with Morel Duxelles, which took first.

All this morel action was starting to gnaw at me. Was I really going to leave Michigan without finding my own? On my way out of town the next morning I got a call from Mary Ellen. Just that morning she had taken a stroll near her home and found the first "grays" of the season. "Get over here quick!" she advised. Well, I suppose I could be a little late for dinner back in Marquette... Sure enough, a few little morels were just starting to pop around an old apple tree in an overgrown orchard. She held one out for inspection. Whether it was a gray, white, or yellow—or all three—I couldn't be sure, but it definitely had the fetching demeanor of a true morel and I could feel the first twinges of a sickness coming on.

"I've got another spot we need to check," said Mary Ellen. We hurried back to our cars and drove down the road a piece, pulling off on a dirt track a mile or so away. We both had the fever now. Ramps of perfect harvesting size carpeted the ground and Dutchman's breeches bloomed in delicate bunches.

"How will we ever see them with this riot of greenery?"

"Look for the ash."

My eye was getting better. I picked out a cluster of three ash trees and then started poking around. Voila! A small morel tried to hide from me beneath a trillium. And another... Soon I had a dozen from this one cluster of ash trees. We spotted another large ash and made a bee-line. More morels. I was scoring the way the locals did. An hour later, with enough morels to bring to Marquette, I thanked Mary Ellen and reluctantly bid adieu to Boyne City.

That night my old friends Russ and Carol put together a feast of homemade pasta with Lamb and Morel Stew ladled on top and spring asparagus on the side. Local, seasonal, and superb. We walked it off on the beach a few blocks from their home, Lake Superior lapping in the moonlight, and finished the evening with a couple beers at a hotel bar in town. The next day I would be leaving—but not without a fistful of that other local delicacy, ramps...

Monday, May 23, 2011

On Ramp

My friends Russell and Carol left Seattle several years ago when Russ, a Blake scholar and artist, got a teaching gig at Northern Michigan University. Carol, also an artist, had been a cook at the first good restaurant I ever ate at in Seattle, the Dahlia Lounge. If you guessed that I visited their home in Marquette because I missed Carol's food, you wouldn't be far off. But mostly I miss the banter with these two old friends and this trip had been a long time coming.

Now that I've been to the Northern Woods of Michigan, all I can say is I'm going back. I fell hard for the place, with its woods, lakes, and friendly people.

My approach to Marquette on the Upper Peninsula was less than encouraging: fog, drizzle, temps in the forties. Might as well have been back in Seattle! But over a long weekend the state slowly and quietly began to reveal its charms to me. It must be a magical place to strap on the cross-country boards in winter. In spring, after a hard, snow-filled winter, the reawakening of the woods is palpable in a way that nearly overwhelms the senses. Warblers singing, wildflowers blooming, all sorts of trees leafing out against the backdrop of an azure sky.

Those hardwood forests that seem to go on forever are a big part of what attracts me to Michigan. I grew up with hardwoods in New England. Oak, maple, birch, and so on. But there's also a long list of trees I never learned as a kid, and they're still a chore to identify now: beech, gum, hornbeam, hickory, and many more. And beneath the trees grows a crazy-quilt of greenery. I thought we had a monopoly on trilliums here in the Pacific Northwest until stepping foot on Michigan soil. There were Dutchman's breeches and jack-in-the-pulpits and trout lilies (pictured), plus scores of other plants I didn't recognize. Wild raspberry everywhere. And perhaps more ubiquitous than any other plant: wild leeks—a native allium sometimes known by the name ramp (Allium tricoccum). Everywhere you looked, you saw this wild gourmet delicacy, growing in enormous patches that carpeted the woods. You smelled them, too.

The ramps appear as the hardwood forests open their leaves and the first neo-tropical warblers arrive with their splashes of unlikely color and insistent songs. Up and down the Appalachian Mountains, small rural communities honor this edible plant that heralds spring with festivals and feasts, such as the Feast of the Ramson in Richwood, West Virginia, where ramp culture reaches its zenith. In Northern Michigan, the ramp almost seems taken for granted, so common is it—and the locals are busy gearing up for morels anyway.

Hey, no problem. I'll pick a few of your ramps. They're a novelty for me since they don't grow west of the Great Plains. The picking is easy, if a bit tedious. The ramp bulbs are fairly shallow, though firmly rooted. After a soil-loosening rainstorm is a good time to go picking. You can use a shovel or iron to further loosen the dirt or even slide a finger down the stalk and into the ground. Ramps of good cooking size can be snapped by hand where the roots meet the bulb.

Once you get your catch home, wash the ramps under a tap and slide the outer membrane off the bulb. This will remove most of the dirt. Slice off dirt-encrusted roots with a paring knife.

As for flavor, you often hear that ramps are like a cross between garlic and onions, but I prefer to think of them as hillbilly leeks with an earthy twang. Like cultivated leeks, you're wise to use the white and green parts in different ways. Generally speaking, the white bulbs are best chopped and sauteed until at least translucent (like scallion bulbs) while the green leaves can be chopped and added to a dish near the end and cooked down (like spinach). We ate ramps all kinds of ways: simply chopped and sauteed over wild whitefish fillets; with eggs; in a soup of cherrystone clams, vegetables, and chicken stock. We ate ramps like we would never eat them again—which was true, in a way, for me...excepting that batch I smuggled onto the plane... [to be continued]

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

School's Out...side

If there's one message I want to send via this blog and my book, it's this: Get outside.

The more time we spend in the outdoors reconnecting with the natural world, the healthier our minds and bodies will be and the more likely we'll become good stewards of the environment. That's my opinion, at least.

Last week I had a chance to put this simple idea to work with a dozen high school students. We spent the week mostly outside in a variety of landscapes, studying our local plants, animals, and fungi—and nourishing ourselves with the natural foods found all around us. 

On Day 1 we went to the beach. Most of the kids had never dug clams before. They found sand dollars and learned about invasive critters like the oyster drill. A few of them even sampled a raw oyster for the first time. Time passed quickly as they explored Puget Sound's nearshore habitat, watching fly fishermen cast for searun cutthroat, munching on a sea bean or two, and noting a patch of Japanese knotweed that had gotten a foothold above the tideline.

After digging limits of Manila clams we steamed our catch on camp stoves, to unanimous approval. There was a palpable sense of achievement: we're eating food we had gathered just moments earlier. It tasted fresh and satisfying.

Day 2 was spent in the Cascade foothills outside Seattle, where we hiked a few miles and identified dozens of edible plants along the way. We nibbled some and picked quantities of others for a Friday feast, including stinging nettles, fiddleheads, and miner's lettuce.

The urban foraging component on Day 3 was perhaps the most surprising part of the week, as we found all kinds of delicacies in a public park just a few blocks away from school. The students picked enough dandelions to make several loaves of bread and a platterful of Dandy Burgers. But that was merely the beginning. Right in the city we found fiddleheads, wild wood sorrel, maple blossoms, and even a patch of shaggy mane mushrooms in prime condition, inspiring two of the students to compose "Ode to a Shaggy Mane," the tragic tale of the mushroom's biological imperative to deliquesce.

Also on Day 3 we had lunch at Nettletown to see how a local restaurant incorporates wild foods into its menu (verdict: delicious) and then broke into smaller groups back in the school kitchen to make Dandy Bread and Muffins at the end of the day.

Day 4 was a jaunt to the sunny side of the mountains to look for morel mushrooms. Who doesn't love a treasure hunt? After I confirmed that a few of the cryptic caps were indeed poking out of the leaf litter, the students slowed down and started scanning the ground with intensity. Occasional hoots and hollers punctuated their discoveries. The excitement of the mushroom hunt was in the air. Our morel season has only just begun in the snowbound North Cascades but we found enough to saute up a panful with garlic and shallots and enjoy the distinctive earthy spring flavor of morels over sliced baguette.

For Day 5 the students gathered one last time to spend the day writing about their experiences before cooking a celebratory meal. I couldn't be there for the final feast, but no matter; at that point they had confidence in their abilities to plan and execute a wild food menu of their own devising. Susanne, their teacher, told me later that "the kids really impressed themselves and the people around campus. It was a gorgeous sunny day so we set up a table out on the grass and had a picnic."

What a perfect way to conclude a week in nature's class room.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Spicy Thai Basil Clams

Last week I shucked and jived with my first shellfish class. We couldn't have asked for a better day. The sun was out, as were bald eagles, plenty other clam diggers, and daytrippers shaking off what has been a tough spring of record rain and cold. A herd of elk even joined us on the beach to take in the sun. John Adams, manager of Taylor Shellfish's Dosewallips farm, was also on hand to share his extensive knowledge of shellfish habits and habitat.

And my words of wisdom to the assembled students, as reported by Seattle Weekly's new food critic, Hanna Raskin? Shellfish harvesting is "embarrassingly easy." Not that you should be embarrassed to take a class to learn how! Probably my choice of words could have been better.

The thing is, digging Manila clams is easy. They live just a few swipes of a hand rake beneath the surface of gravelly or muddy beaches throughout Puget Sound. After digging limits of clams and picking oysters, we walked back to a picnic shelter at Dosewallips State Park to cook our catch. If clamming is embarrassingly easy, preparing a gourmet meal in the outdoors is eye-poppingly simple.

First, to accompany an oyster shucking demo, we whipped together a Tom Douglas mignonette with champagne vinegar, diced shallot, lemon zest, and black pepper. I keep baby jars on hand for just this purpose. The mignonette was met with unanimous approval—it's no secret that a touch of acidity can bolster the joys of oyster eating.

Next we fired up the camp-stoves to make two different batches of steamed clams, one with Italian sausage and tomato, the other with a white wine and herbed butter sauce. I put the students to work. They diced onions, minced garlic, browned sausage, chopped herbs, and so on. The beauty of steamed clams is that a little prep leads to a meal that tastes like hours of kitchen slaving. The clams' liquor is the magic ingredient, combining with the other elements to create an alchemy of flavors that demands good crusty bread for full sopping effect. Empty beer boxes soon filled up with shells, a modern day midden.

Meanwhile John put the charcoal grill to work. He had a bag of key limes on hand for just this moment. I can now say that BBQ oysters with a squeeze of key lime is my new favorite way to eat the briny bivalves. I'll probably always like raw oysters the most, but it had been a while since I'd last barbecued them—and with a squirt of hot sauce rather than lime. John's method was an improvement. Oysters plump up nicely on the grill and the flavor is more rich than raw on the halfshell. The key lime was a perfect accompaniment. John said his father—also a shellfish farmer—believed that oysters with barnacles on the shell were superior to those without. I had to agree.

The next night I prepared the rest of my clam limit at home, using this basic but flavorful Thai preparation.

Spicy Thai Basil Clams

3 lbs Manila clams
1 tbsp peanut oil
6 cloves garlic, diced
1 thumb ginger, diced
8 Thai bird chilies, halved & de-seeded
2 tbsp Chinese rice wine
2 tsp sugar
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp chili bean sauce
1 1/2 cup basil, chopped

1. Scrub and rinse clams.

2. Combine rice wine, sugar, fish sauce, and chili bean sauce into small bowl.

3. Heat oil in wok. Stir-fry garlic, ginger, and chili peppers for a minute or two over medium heat, then stir in sauce, raise heat to high, and add clams. Cover and cook until clams open, several  minutes.

4. When clams have opened, remove from heat and stir in basil.

Serve immediately with steamed rice while singing Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" as fair warning to your guests.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Good Book

When it comes to stewardship of the seas, we've been greedy, irresponsible, and just plain stupid. We take too many fish, wreck habitats in the process, and feign ignorance when it suits us. Really, we could use a few old-fashioned whacks on the bottom from Sister Nature.

But being human, we don't like being lectured to or ordered around. This is why Becky Selengut, the author of Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coastis the right messenger for our sadly diminished times. Becky (who happens to be a friend) is a chef and seafood lover. She's also a compassionate writer with a wicked sense of humor. Becky's not going to go all earnest on us, like so many otherwise well-meaning greenies.

Here she is on her conflicted feelings about shrimp, a poster fish for bad practices:
When I was just a wee lass, I had a thing bad for shrimp cocktail. I remember how cold and frosty that glass was; how the ice cupped a thimbleful of cocktail sauce in the middle; how five plump shrimp fanned out from the center like the orange-pink petals of a rare flower... I feel wistful about those cheap and easy shrimp cocktails, those family meals that seemed to be devoid of the modern conversations about food that are fairly commonplace today. Being an ethical eater sometimes gives me an adult-size headache.
Becky feels our pain—the pain that comes with knowledge, responsibility, and doing the right thing (not to mention the pain of being reprimanded). I fondly remember those shrimp cocktails, too. They were a treat. But no more. As Becky goes on to say, there is also pleasure in being informed and eating seasonally. Those shrimp cocktails were special, but a sustainably harvested spot shrimp pulled from the depths of Puget Sound and savored the very same day is even more special.

Becky is a knowledgeable guide in all things briny. She peddled crab-stuffed flounder rolls as a kid in New Jersey, went to culinary school, then put her degree to work in a number of Northwest eateries before becoming the "fish girl" at the famed Herbfarm Restaurant. Now she's a chef for hire, freelance writer, and teaches cooking classes. Good Fish is her paean to what remains of the Pacific fishery. While it's mostly a cook book, with mouth-watering dishes for sustainable species, it also shows off Becky's wit and wisdom in the head notes and marginalia that accompany each chapter and recipe.

To wit: It wasn't until years later that I realized sablefish and black cod are the same thing. In fact, I do believe I've said at a cocktail party or two that my two favorite fish were sablefish and black cod. At least I'm consistent. Or this: Arctic char is the smart, well-dressed girl in the corner of the room who's quiet and subtle and doesn't hit you over the head with her confidence, yet everyone in the room (especially her) knows she's got it all going on. So true. I can personally attest to Becky's badinage (and occasional bawdiness); I took her clam-digging and spent the afternoon between fits of laughter and perma-blush.

Back to the message. If you want to be a responsible steward of the sea, it's time to consider dog salmon and sardines for the table. Gone are the days of blue fin tuna, Chilean sea bass (aka Patagonia toothfish), and whatever variety of shrimp the supermarket happens to carry. We need to be conscious of the seafood choices we make.

I like to think I know a few things about Pacific fish, but I'm always learning from Becky, even on familiar subjects. For instance, in her salmon chapter, she gives some buying tips that includes this useful nugget: "Look carefully at the pin bones. If you see a divot around the pin bones, it's a sign that the fillet is old." The images depicting fish fillets (salmon and halibut) that are undercooked, just right, and overcooked will be cherished by inexperienced home cooks looking for just the right flake factor.

A few of the recipes in the book I've been lucky enough to be served by the author herself, such as Jet's Oyster Succotash, while others I just had to try. The Geoduck Crudo is light and balanced, without stepping on the big clam's...err...neck. Scallops with Carrot Cream and Marjoram—delicate, sweet, and briny—did indeed "blow this dish right out of the water." Others are on my to-do list: Mussels with Guinness Cream; Halibut Coconut Curry with Charred Chiles and Lime; and Dungeness Crab Mac-and-Cheese.

This is a book I'll be going back to again and again, for inspiration in the kitchen or just to savor a fishy turn of phrase. Every piscivore should own a copy.