Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Earthly Combo: Stinging Nettles & Morels

This spring I've happened on a seasonal pairing that will be a regular part of the menu from now on: stinging nettles and morels. In particular, the combo involves Stinging Nettle Pesto with sauteed morels. You might wonder whether these two supremely earthy tastes would cancel each other out. To the contrary, they complement each other, one cool and woodsy with a sharp bite; the other rich and evocative of the ground beneath our feet.

We first tried the pairing as a crostini. Marty surprised me with it one evening while I was busy making a Pinot Noir reduction. She lightly toasted sliced baguette, spread on ricotta followed by the nettle pesto, and finished the crostini with sauteed morels. We knew she was onto something with the first bite. It sounds so simple, yes, and you can almost imagine the flavors if you've eaten these foods before. But the pairing is more than the sum of its parts.

The next try was a pizza with the pesto and morels, plus mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and a sprinkling of garden greens. While Marty is known for making some mean pizza, this was off the hook.

Most of you will have to wait until next year to give it a shot. Stinging nettles are flowering across much of their range and morels are dust nearly everywhere except the higher elevations of the Northwest. I'm hoping I might get one more chance when I venture into the mountains in late June.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Kiss My Geoduck

This spring's shellfish classes have been more fun than I could have imagined. Any day playing at the shore is a day well spent, but when you add in a mix of interesting folks and the promise of fresh seafood cooked on site, the bonhomie is nearly boundless.

Those of us who have been digging clams for years sometimes forget there's a learning curve to seafood foraging—from understanding the different habitats and species to knowing what tools to use. Even the processing and cooking of shellfish can be intimidating to a first-timer.

I should know. Despite having been a  regular digger of littlenecks, razors, cockles, and a variety of other bivalves, it was only in the last couple years that I started going after geoducks. Why the wait? I suppose it was a variety of things—their size, the fact that they're available only during the lowest tides of the year, the specialized cooking techniques, and so on. Geoducks are the big time.

When Jeff Ozimek at Bainbridge Island Parks & Rec (pictured below holding a 'duck and a small horse clam) proposed a geoduck class, I was admittedly skeptical. Even a seasoned geoducker doesn't always get his 'duck. Instead, we initiated the foraging curriculum with some introductory classes that tackled the basics, gathering limits of littlenecks and oysters and then cooking them up at a picnic shelter. But the interest in a geoduck class was high, so we took the plunge.

Despite a late start (the Hood Canal Bridge closed for nuclear submarine traffic) and a somewhat chaotic beginning, during which a few 'ducks escaped our furious digging efforts as an insurmountable tide flooded in, the class regrouped farther up the beach and managed to dig two geoducks. Everyone had the chance to reach deep into a hole to feel the rubbery neck of a geoduck and then contemplate what it would take to excavate around its shell and wrestle the thing out. Some of us got good and muddy, too.

The biggest letdown was tussling with a huge clam only to find out it was a horse and not a 'duck, a mistake that can usually be prevented by seeing (or feeling) the tip of the siphon before digging. (The geoduck's siphon tip is relatively smooth.) But with clam shows all around us and a posse of hungry diggers, it was catch as catch can—and no surprise we rode a few ponies.

Digging 'ducks (or any clams, for that matter) will give you an appetite. Back at the picnic shelter everyone pitched in to make sashimi and ceviche with the geoduck's raw neck meat and stir-fried body meat with snap peas, carrots, and onions. Most of the students had never tasted geoduck before. They were just as taken as I was upon first bite by its sweetness and satisfying crunch. The finish on a bite of geoduck sashimi is akin to another local delicacy, the Olympia oyster: that initial sweet clam flavor leads to a slightly coppery or metallic aftertaste that mingles nicely with a drink of white wine or a beer.

Two geoducks fed about a dozen people in all. Not a bad ratio of clam to digger.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Salmon with Pinot Noir Sauce & Morels

Columbia River spring chinook and many of the Alaskan salmon stocks happen to be running when the land fish—morels—are spawning...err...sporing. No surprise that a fatty, omega 3-laden fish happens to pair very nicely with an earthy mushroom that is equally fleeting in this life.

And that pairing would be fine if we stopped right there, but a red wine reduction—in particular, a Pinot Noir reduction—is just the thing to tie these two spring delicacies together in a dance of earth and water.

I used a Copper River sockeye for this purpose along with morels foraged in Washington's central Cascades. The wine was nothing special, though one is always told to not cook with anything that you wouldn't drink, and the rule holds here.

This recipe is adapted from my friend Becky Selengut's new cookbook, Good Fish. Becky is always razzing me for using too much butter and cream (and she's right!) but I notice that she's rather liberal with the butter on this one. In fact, incredibly, I pared the butter back a skosh. The original recipe is for four servings; this is for two. You can get away with a half-stick of butter, though you may choose to add a bit more. Hey, it's your arteries.

2 tbsp shallot, minced
1/2 star anise
1/2 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed
1 tsp honey
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups Pinot Noir
4 tbsp cold unsalted butter

1/2 lb wild salmon fillet
olive oil
salt & pepper
1/4 lb morels, halved

1. To make sauce, combine sauce ingredients in large pan and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until reduced to 1/4 cup, about 30 minutes. Strain through fine wire mesh and return to pan. Whisk in butter over medium heat until sauce is syrupy.

2. Meanwhile pre-heat oven on broil. Brush salmon fillets with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place salmon skin side down on aluminum foil on baking sheet, within 6 inches or so of heating element. The rule of thumb is 10 minutes of broiling per inch of thickness; I usually cook salmon less than the rule of thumb.

3. Saute morels separately in a small pan with butter.

4. Spoon sauce onto warm plate, place salmon over sauce, and shower with morels.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Spring Mushroom Camp, Sisters, OR

Pickers and buyers at the Jack Creek commercial mushroom camp, Deschutes National Forest, Oregon, June 1 - 2, 2011.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Oyster Bánh Mì

With the warm weather we bid adieu to oysters. For the next few months they'll be on the spawn as the water approaches temperatures fit for reproduction. Hence the old adage about not eating oysters in months without an "R": May, June, July, August.

Like most adages, there's some truth at the heart of the matter, though in this age of carefully farmed shellfish, not a month goes by that you can't eat a tasty oyster. When oysters put their energy and fat reserves into sexual reproduction, however, their flesh becomes thin, watery, or even milky as the the reproductive organs take center stage. The milkiness is particularly off-putting to someone looking to slurp a raw oyster.

While spawning oysters are not choice, they're not poisonous either, and sometimes in late spring you can find habitat where oysters will still be suitable for the table even as their brethren in other nearby locales are beginning to spawn. Such habitat will be at the lowest tide levels where the oysters aren't exposed to sun and tepid tide pools for lengths of time, and on beaches where colder water currents flush through the shellfish beds. Oysters in such areas have a shorter spawning window. Even so, I usually prefer to cook these oysters in the warm months.

Here's a recipe for just such an oyster: a Vietnamese-style Bánh Mì sandwich. This hybrid of traditional southeast Asian and French cuisines dates to the French occupation of Indochina. In American cities with large Vietnamese populations, the Bánh Mì is known as a delicious—and cheap!—lunch option for those on the go. Various meats are arranged on a baguette along with fixings such as fresh cilantro, pickled carrot, cucumber, daikon radish, and so on, and usually glued together with a sauce of some kind, often mayo-based. Ideally the baguette is crusty with just enough of a soft interior to cradle the meat.

I've never seen an Oyster Bánh Mì at my usual Vietnamese haunts. This is one sandwich you'll have to make yourself. Typically a Bánh Mì is scarfed down solo while hurrying to an appointment, but I've written the ingredients below to serve two at home.

2 individual baguettes
1 dozen oysters
1/2 cup panko or breadcrumbs
1/4 cup flour
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp butter

sweet chili sauce, such as Mae Ploy
hot sauce

1 small cucumber, peeled and sliced
1 small carrot, julienne
several lettuce leaves

1. To make sauce, mix together equal amounts of sweet chili sauce and mayonnaise. Add hot sauce to taste.

2. Dip oysters in egg, then dredge in mixture of panko and flour.

3. Fry oysters in butter over medium heat. Remove to paper towels.

4. Slice baguettes lengthwise. Slather with sauce. Arrange oysters and fixings.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Chinese Ramps

At the height of my recent Michigan ramp delirium, I found myself at the Marquette airport clutching a duffel bag stuffed with ramps. "Would you like to carry that on?" inquired the checker.

A quick calculus in my ramp-besotted head. "Um, I guess so." I wasn't letting go.

"Don't let me talk you into it. We can check it."

Was this some sort of double-speak? Were they toying with me? More to the point, did my breath stink of contraband? "Yes, I'll carry." I casually chatted up the security personnel as the x-ray attendant scanned my bag.

"Have a good flight."

Phew! In the clear. When I got my booty safely home I already knew what the menu would be. A recipe was waiting in my in-box, compliments of my friends and ramp initiators, Russ and Carol. They like to call this dish Slippery Chicken and Ramps, which strikes me as a good name for a meal that was finessed through various checkpoints. I rounded out the menu with a simple Drunken Clams with Ramps.

Slippery Chicken and Ramps

1 lb chicken breast or thighs, cut into thin 2-inch strips
1 tbsp corn starch
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp dark soy sauce
2 tsp soy sauce
2-3 tbsp peanut oil
1 heaping tbsp diced garlic
1 heaping tbsp diced ginger
1 tbsp fermented black beans
1 thick handful fresh ramps
splash Chinese cooking wine

1. Mix corn starch, sesame oil, and soy sauces together into marinade. Stir in chicken pieces and set aside for at least an hour.

2. Cut off ramp bulbs and separate from green leaves. Thinly slice bulbs. Roughly chop leaves.

3. Heat 1 to 2 tbsp peanut oil in wok. Saute chicken over medium-high heat until barely cooked through. Don't overcook. Remove from wok.

4. Heat 1 tbsp peanut oil in wok and saute garlic, ginger, and black beans until fragrant, a minute or so. Add sliced ramp bulbs and cook until translucent.

5. Deglaze wok with a splash of Chinese cooking wine. Add remaining chopped ramps, which will reduce like spinach.

6. Increase heat to high and toss in chicken. Stir quickly to mix, then serve.

The name is apt. Slippery Chicken, thanks to the marinade and careful cooking, should be velvety tender. In fact, you'll most often see it called Velvet Chicken, with some recipes using egg whites to achieve this effect. I found the mixture of oil, corn starch, and soy sauce to be plenty slippery without the use of egg whites. You can spice up this dish with Sichuan peppercorns, chili paste, black vinegar, or other typical Sichuan ingredients.

Drunken Clams with Ramps

40 Manila clams
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 heaping tbsp diced garlic
1 heaping tbsp diced ginger
1 handful fresh ramps
1 cup Chinese rice wine
1 tsp aji-mirin
1 tsp sesame oil

1. Cut off ramp bulbs and separate from green leaves. Thinly slice bulbs. Roughly chop leaves.

2. Heat peanut oil in wok. Over medium heat, saute garlic, ginger, and sliced ramp bulbs, until ramps soften, careful not to burn garlic and ginger, a minute or two.

3. Add rice wine and aji-mirin, raise heat, and bring to boil.

4. Stir in clams and cover.

5. When clams begin to open, stir in chopped ramp leaves and cover again. Cook another minute until clams fully open.

Serve Slippery Chicken and Drunken Clams with rice.

By now it's late in the season even for Northern Michigan ramps. File these recipes away for next year. And speaking of next year's ramp harvest—and hopefully the harvests of many years to come—it's worth remembering that ramps are a wild resource that shouldn't be over-exploited. There's concern in some parts of the country, notably the Smoky Mountains of Southern Appalachia, that ramps are on the decline. The Mushroom Forager blog pointed out this recent article in the New York Times, "When Digging for Ramps Goes Too Far." Choose your patches wisely and exercise restraint.