Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Licorice Fern Beurre Blanc

The rhizomes of licorice ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) are at their tender peak right now in the Pacific Northwest. I nabbed a few while hiking the other day.

A rhizome is the root-like base that anchors the fern. Licorice ferns most commonly grow from the trunks and horizontal limbs of old deciduous trees such as big-leaf maples, but they'll also colonize rocks, logs, and other support structures. A network of  rhizomes, often hidden beneath a thick carpet of moss, spreads across damp, forested habitat, sprouting fronds as it creeps along. To harvest, you peel back the moss, locate the rhizome, and gently pull it off its support. A single rhizome can be more than a foot long, with several ferns attached. Native Americans chewed them for their sweet, licorice-like taste and also as a medicinal that was thought to cure ailments such as colds and sore throats.

Licorice ferns are interesting edibles. More and more restaurants are using them to infuse sauces, make teas, or serve candied. The anise-like flavor is apparent when the root is nibbled raw, but in a sauce I find it much more subtle, with a touch of a licorice sensation on the tongue and a hint of sweetness. In general I'd say licorice ferns are more of a novelty, a way to add an exotic touch to a meal.

Broiled Halibut with Licorice Fern Beurre Blanc, Truffle Butter & Root Medley

Halibut just came back into season a week ago and root vegetables are still going strong, though their days are numbered. Even though we had frost on the front lawn the other morning, it looks like the Pacific Northwest is finally waking up to spring like the rest of the country. It was in the sixties over the weekend.

This dish is adapted from a lunch I had at Etta's Kitchen not too long ago, except that Etta's used lingcod and some preserved lemon, and the licorice fern is my addition. It's an easy yet elegant preparation, comfort all the way. The root medley, especially the parsnip and fennel, adds sweetness to echo the licorice fern in the sauce.

Beurre Blanc is a sauce every home cook should know. It's a simple way to gussy up a basic meal of fish or vegetables, and it's suitable for fancier occasions, too. Lately I've been playing with the ingredients and amounts without any of the problems that typically plague other more persnickety French sauces, and I have yet to break one despite experiments with lobster stock, extra wine, lemon juice in place of vinegar, and varying amounts of butter. You can make a butter extravaganza if you like, but I really prefer it a little less creamy.

Cut the root vegetables into 1-inch cubes. I used a parsnip, a turnip, two large carrots, a couple small potatoes, a fennel bulb, and maybe a third of a celery root to make the medley, which I slathered with olive oil and cooked at 375 degrees until tender, about 45 minutes. The root vegetables got plated, bathed in sauce, and topped with a broiled fillet of fish. A pat of truffle butter closed the deal.

The sauce here is a modified Beurre Blanc without the usual butter assault. As mentioned, I like this sauce slightly brothy, though no one would ever call it thin.

1 four-inch licorice fern root, peeled & chopped
1 heaping tbsp shallot, finely diced
1/4 cup champagne (or white wine) vinegar
1/4 cup white wine
1/2 cup stock, divided (chicken, vegetable, lobster)
1 stick cold butter, cut into 8 - 10 sections
2 tsp lemon juice
salt & white pepper

1. Combine fern root, shallots, vinegar, and wine in small saucepan over medium heat. Reduce to 2 tablespoons.

2. Add half the stock and reduce to a few tablespoons. Add remainder of stock and reduce again.

3. Turn heat to low and start adding cold butter one section at a time, whisking frequently. Add another piece when the previous one has melted into the sauce. Don't overheat or sauce will break. You can adjust the consistency by adding more butter or stock. For this dish I prefer it soupy. Finish the sauce with a splash of lemon juice off heat, whisk again, and strain.

Serves 4 modest portions.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Razor Clam Linguini

It's been nearly a year since my last razor clam dig. I missed all the nighttime fall digs. Last weekend marked that point in the calendar and tide table when the digs switch over to morning, and on Sunday the moon was kind enough to give us a 9:30 a.m. low tide, which meant a leisurely breakfast in camp after a night of wine and whiskey.

I was with my friends the Coras, immortalized in the morel chapter of Fat of the Land, and had my daughter Ruby in tow. We hit the beach south of Twin Harbors State Park an hour before the turn, bundled up against a cold wind and ready to bag some razors.

The shows on this morning were fairly cryptic. I saw a lot of clammers pacing the flats with near-empty mesh bags. The key was in recognizing even the slightest hint of a show, sometimes no more than the smallest suggestion of a dimple in the sand. Most times, even when I doubted my eyes, I came away with a clam for the effort.

The problem in these conditions is gauging the size of the clams; it was virtually impossible with such minimalist shows. My clams varied widely in stature, though I managed to get a few nice ones, along with more than a fair share that were just average. It's shaping up to be a year of average size from what I've been hearing. Who knows why. Could be ocean conditions, food supply, naturally occurring toxins in the water impeding growth. Or maybe it's just a cyclical thing. I didn't see a single six-incher.

Ruby did yeoman's work reaching into the holes to capture fleeing razors before they dug themselves to freedom. At one point a wave came in and caught me mid-pull. I could only watch as wet sand leaked from my gun and the golden flash of a razor slipped out and into the current. Well, that's not entirely true. I lunged after it, and knocked Ruby over in the process. Even though her fashionable little rubber boots with tattoos of skulls and hearts filled instantly with cold water, we both scrambled after the clam as if dinner depended on it. The razor bobbed up in the surf and then went under again. We knee-walked after it, stabbing at the water with our hands. When I came up with the razor after another mad dash in the waves Ruby cheered. Then she realized she was soaked. End of dig for Ruby.

We got her dried off and comfortable in the van and then I went back out and got my limit. The Coras got their limits soon after, and just like that, game over. Even on the more challenging days the clamming always seems to go by too quickly.

Back home we cleaned our catch and decided a razor clam pasta would be the blue plate special of the day. I'm a huge fan of Pasta alle Vongole. This dish is similar, but because razors need to be exhumed from their shells and cleaned before cooking, you don't get that bonus liquor that makes instant sauce as with hardshell clams. West Coast razors, of course, make up for this shortcoming with unparalleled flavor. I added chopped tomatoes to buttress the sauce. Freshly made pasta is best.

1 1/2 cups razor clams, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
10 oz linguini
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup onion, diced
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup white wine
2 cups tomatoes, diced
1 tbsp oregano, chopped (optional)
1 cup parsley, chopped
2 tbsp basil, chopped (optional)
saffron or red pepper flakes (optional)
1/3 cup parmesan, grated

1. In a large sauce pan, sweat the onions and garlic over medium heat in the butter and olive oil. Add wine (I added several strands of saffron to wine half an hour beforehand) and cook for a few minutes, then add tomatoes and oregano and simmer 10 - 15 minutes. If sauce gets too thick, add a splash of water.

2. If using fresh pasta, add the razor clams to sauce when adding pasta to boil; if dried, wait until pasta is half-cooked. The razors only need a few minutes of cooking.

3. Drain and toss pasta in a large bowl with sauce, parsley, and any other herbs. Serve with parmesan.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Exploring Taste

Last summer the founders of Sahale Snacks approached me about participating in a film shoot in a remote location to highlight their passion for quality portable food. They started by telling me the origin of their business. Josh and Edmond, old friends, had climbed Mt. Rainier a few years back and while sitting on a glacier heating up nasty, freeze-dried camp food, they vowed to produce something better—healthier and tastier—that outdoors enthusiasts could eat in the harshest, most abject conditions. Or in the most splendid, beautiful conditions. This was the birth of Sahale Snacks.

The story resonated with me. I had experienced a similar food letdown while climbing Mt. Rainier. A package of ramen at 11,000 feet hardly seemed like the right way—nutritionally or spiritually—to prepare for the summit. So I signed on, joining ranks with a few other hand-picked recruits: Eric Rivera, a young and wildly ambitious sous chef at Blueacre Seafood; Jennifer Adler, a kelp-eating kayaker, teacher, and sought-after nutritionist; and Scott Heimendinger, the mad scientist in the group, aka Seattle Food Geek, who would be an aide-de-camp to Eric.

We spent three days in an out of the way corner of the San Juan Islands, foraging, frolicking, and camping on a hidden, cliff-lined beach in preparation for the Big Meal that would take place on the final day. The foraging wasn't always literal—notably that bottle of Glen Livet found in Edmond's duffel that produced a late night '80s singalong by the fire (sadly not captured on film). But by and large, the ingredients for our meal came either from the woods and surf right outside our tents, or else—as in the case of some delicious free range duck eggs—from locally produced sources nearby.

That meal is etched into my memory along with a few other all-time favorites that transcend the idea of dinner. Part of it was the atmosphere. We ate on the beach at a table fashioned by Scott from found driftwood, with kelp candle holders made by Jennifer, and the fickle San Juan weather gods smiling sunshine on us despite ominous weather reports. Eric pulled off an epic 10-course extravaganza that combined local and foraged foods with his madcap imagination and a fitting sense of the absurd.

Riffing on our location, Eric, with help from Scott and Jennifer, produced dishes like Angry Crab (Dungeness crab claws mounded up as if ready to strike and bathed in a spicy red sauce), High Tide (you can see my version here), Low Tide (manila clams plated on edible sand made from Redhook malt), and a creative take on Pasta Carbonara using squares of kelp frond as the "pasta," the aforementioned duck eggs cooked sous vide, and morel mushrooms poached in locally cured bacon fat. The entire meal was cooked on the beach over a campfire. Shortly afterward, not surprisingly, Eric got lured away by Chicago's renowned Alinea.

The videos for this adventure in foraging and food were professionally shot and edited by a film team from Austin. You can watch them here.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Nettle Green Curry

This was more or less an experiment. I wanted to see how the flavor of stinging nettles might accompany a traditional Thai green curry. I modified a typical recipe for green curry paste to my own liking and then added boiled chopped nettles a little at a time to the food processor until I could taste a change in the overall profile. At that point I added a little more nettle and called it good.

The result was a green curry with an earthier, woodsier flavor. You can adjust this earthiness to your own palate by playing with the proportions of nettles, basil, and cilantro. The paste is incredibly easy to make, and it tastes so much fresher, brighter, and greener than a store-bought paste. All you need is a food processor or blender (or a mortar and pestle if you have the time and stamina).

Nettle Green Curry Paste

1 cup stinging nettles, boiled, drained & chopped
1/2 cup basil, chopped
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, chopped
1 kaffir lime leaf, chopped
1 shallot, peeled
4 large cloves garlic
1 large thumb ginger, peeled and sliced
1 jalapeƱo pepper, sliced
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
2 tsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp shrimp paste (or salt)
2 - 3 tbsp lime juice
3 - 4 tbsp fish sauce
6 tbsp coconut milk

Add more coconut milk to the paste in the food processor if it's too dry. For the finished curry I used a small saucepan to cook a few heaping spoonfuls of the paste in a tablespoon of peanut oil for a minute to unleash the flavors, then slowly stirred in less than a cup of coconut milk until desired consistency and added a few more splashes of fish sauce and a sprinkling of brown sugar. Meanwhile I broiled a fillet of local sablefish for 10 minutes, which got plated on a bed of rice. The curry was deliberately thick so that it could be dolloped on the broiled fish with a garnish of thinly sliced red bell pepper, green onion, and cilantro on top. Crushed peanuts completed the dish. You can adjust the texture, spiciness, and sweetness of the curry to whatever you're cooking. The paste should keep for a week in the refrigerator, or longer if frozen.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Northern California Workshop

I'm honored to be part of Marin Organic's "Food for Thought" series this spring. Join me on March 31 in Bolinas for a foraging and cooking workshop that's sure to be a nourishing day for all. We'll spend a few hours outside identifying and gathering wild foods before returning to a nearby hearth to cook our catch and enjoy a local libation.

The workshop is 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. and costs $80 (including a copy of my book, Fat of the Land). Local forager Kevin Feinstein will be on hand as well to offer advice and sign copies of his new book, The Bay Area Forager. Accompany us for a fun day split between the field and kitchen, with a chance to learn handy skills, make new friends, and enjoy the regional bounty.