Sunday, April 29, 2012

Maple Blossom Fritters

Like squash blossoms, the racemes of bigleaf maple trees can be transformed into a surprising culinary confection. Does frying them up in batter and sprinkling with powdered sugar have anything to do with it? You decide.

The maples where I live are too far along now for harvest, but higher up in the Cascade foothills I found plenty that had just blossomed the other day. You want to get the racemes just as they emerge from the protective red sheath that guards them and the unfurling leaves. At that point the racemes will be compact and tightly clustered; as they blossom, the flower-clusters become large, elongated (several inches or more), and some of the older flowers will have cottony material inside. The newly emerged racemes are easier to work with and make a daintier presentation.

Picking bigleaf maple racemes can present a challenge. On bigger trees the blossoms will often hang tantalizingly out of reach. Look for smaller trees or trees growing on a slope—or nab the blossoms from a bridge or overpass.

The taste of bigleaf maple blossoms is subtle: slightly nutty with a hint of sweetness. I've used them in the past to make pesto. The most common use is for fritters. My recipe is adapted from Poppy chef Jerry Traunfeld's, which can be found in Jennifer Hahn's excellent wild food resource, Pacific Feast. I used less water for a slightly thicker batter. Even so, this batter is very tempura-like. It's thin, drippy, and puffs up around the blossom upon hitting the hot oil. This makes for a light, chewy, beignet-like fritter that's perfect for breakfast, as a dessert course, or, with the smaller blossoms, as an adornment to pudding or crème brûlée. As with beignets, it's best to serve right away while hot and crispy.

2 - 4 cups blossoms
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp corn starch
2 cups ice water
vegetable oil
powdered sugar

1. Check blossoms for insects. Usually they'll evacuate after their hiding place has been plucked.

2. Sift together flour, baking powder, and corn starch in a large bowl.

3. Stir in ice water.

4. Heat 1 inch of vegetable oil in a large saucepan on medium-high until a drop of water crackles and pops. Dredge blossoms in batter, allow excess to drip off, and carefully place in hot oil. Don't crowd the pan. Fry until lightly browned all over. Remove to paper towels.

5. Serve immediately while hot with a sprinkling of powdered sugar.

Note: I discovered on this occasion that I'm allergic to the pollen of big-leaf maples. After a few minutes of working in the kitchen with the blossoms, I was sniffling and my eyes were a red, teary mess. The upside is that this solves a recently developing mystery for me.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Backyard Spaetzle

Seems you can't swing a dead cat in Seattle without hitting a restaurant serving spaetzle. This has been a developing trend over the last few years—and I'm all for it. Whether you call it pasta, dumplings, spaetzle, or any number of other names from around the globe, the combination of flour with water, egg, or milk is pure comfort. As a delivery vehicle for other good flavors—wild mushrooms, herbs, or even weeds—rustic pastas like spaetzle are unparalleled.

I'm a fanatic for homemade Italian pastas, though sometimes you don't have the time or energy to devote to a well-executed ravioli, or even tagliolini. In our family we've been making a simple dish we call Polish Dumplings for years to satisfy the flour-and-egg yen. It's quick, easy, and delicious in a hearty chicken or vegetable soup. This same recipe can be repurposed without any extra effort to make something just that much more delicate and special. Spaetzle (also spelled spätzle) is really just a pile of tiny dumplings. There's something about the mouth feel that's addictive. Whereas dumplings are chunky and filling, spaetzle is light and tender.

Just about any occasion can call for spaetzle, even an afternoon of weeding in the yard. I pulled a couple of my favorites for the table: bittercress and dandelion greens. Back in the disaster zone that is our kitchen, I couldn't find our cheap spaetzle maker so I resorted to a colander, and while you'll see many recipes that suggest this method as an alternative, it's really not the way you want to go. Buy an inexpensive spaetzle maker; you'll make more spaetzle.

I used half the dough to make spaetzle and the rest for basic dumplings.

1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup finely chopped weeds or herbs

1. Put a pot of water on the boil. Whisk together eggs and milk in a small bowl.

2. Measure flour and salt into a large bowl, then add egg-milk mixture and chopped weeds and stir together with a fork until ingredients are mixed but not overly so. The dough should be sticky.

3. Salt boiling water generously. Press dough through spaetzle maker (or a colander, if you must) directly into boiling water.

For larger dumplings like these steaming on a plate (above), just pull gobs of dough off a fork and allow to fall directly into the pot. Both spaetzle and dumplings are ready when floating on the surface. It doesn't take long.

For my daughter's portion, I melted a pat of butter on top and grated some fresh parmesan cheese. Ruby liked it just like that, but you could serve it as a side dish or top with a meat or wild mushroom ragu. Spaetzle is a self-starter and plays well with others.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Comments, Money & Grumps

Dear Readers,

Recently it has come to my attention that the infernal spam bots have taken a liking to FOTL. They're sneaky—they attach their junk to older posts. I spent hours the other day weeding them off the site. Too bad they have no nutritional value like true weeds. As a result of this hassle, I've switched the comments from unmoderated to moderated. The upside is that I'll intercept the spam at the gate; the downside is that you might need to wait a few days to see your comment if I'm in the field or traveling.

While slashing down the spam, I noticed that there were quite a few comments I'd never seen before. Because this blog is seasonal, certain topics tend to come up year after year (e.g. dandelions in March). I'll try to address unanswered questions/concerns in future weeks.

I also came across a few rather grumpy comments about "commercial" aspects of this blog. Perhaps you've noticed that there's no advertising here, unlike many blogs in the 'sphere. This is by choice. (And by the way, I don't begrudge any blogger who tries to monetize their site in a relevant manner.) I've chosen to not take ads in order to reduce clutter and because, frankly, I don't think advertising would earn me enough income to justify the effort. I know other bloggers who make a tidy sum in advertising each month because of their excellent and popular blogs.

That said, I need to make a living and this blog is part of my work. Many of my readers are grateful to know about upcoming workshops and lectures; if you're not among them, I ask for your patience. It's my opinion that the occasional post about such events hardly constitutes a mercenary backslide into crass commercialism, but we all have our own definitions. One reader told me such posts only belonged on web sites, not blogs. This seems to me to be slicing it awfully thin. In any event, I plan to take that reader's advice at some point in the future and start a site. Until then, relevant info about upcoming trips, workshops, lectures, readings, and so on, will appear on this blog from time to time.

Thanks to my faithful readers for your interest and support.

—The Management

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bay Area Bounty

West Marin at the end of March is a trip into Eden. The headlands have greened up from winter rains (admittedly spotty this year), the rivers run high, and the woods and meadows overflow with a riot of tangled undergrowth, much of it edible.

More than 20 years ago, when I lived briefly in Berkeley and San Francisco, I heard stories about Bolinas. Tucked away on a thumb of land south of Pt. Reyes and between the Pacific Ocean and Bolinas Lagoon, the community shunned conventional ways. The funny-looking locals farmed funny-looking crops in funny ways. Heck, maybe they even foraged (gasp!). This led to busloads of tourists wanting pictures of the native wildlife. Whenever the county erected a sign tipping off lookey-loos to their whereabouts, the locals tore it down. There's still no sign today, but the tenets of organic farming that began largely in this valley are now practiced all over the country; local artisan food makers are celebrated across the land for their award-winning breads, brews, cheeses, meats, and preserves; and foraging is just another common sense way to gather fresh, healthy food.

This past weekend, thanks to organizer Marin Organic, I joined with a few dozen food and outdoor lovers from all over the Bay to wander among the stunning beauty and bounty of Bolinas. [Listen to a radio story about the event here.] Kevin Feinstein, co-author of The Bay Area Forager, was on hand to share his local wisdom, and we were fortunate to have a few practicing chefs (plus eager students) to help with the afternoon feast. The weather looked ominous. Driving over Mount Tam, my rental car shook violently in the wind. Rain blowing in off the Pacific slashed sideways at my windshield. But by the time we poked our heads out from under the eaves of the Gospel Flat Farm stand, the rain had subsided and the sun was working hard to shoehorn clouds out the way.

Andrea Blum Photo
We all walked across the street to the Star Route Farms property that would be our primary hunting ground. Normally I wouldn't be enthusiastic about picking wild foods next to a farm, but Star Route has been organic for nearly four decades, and it shows. The rows between crops are loaded with weeds—healthy, nutritious, delicious weeds—weeds that get harvested right along with the domestic vegetables. [See top photo.] We picked nasturtium flowers, wild radish seed pods, mallow, cat's ear, and other weeds before climbing up into the wet jungle that rises above the farm, protecting its watershed with a forest of native trees and a host of native and non-native edible plants.

Robust patches of miner's lettuce forced us to choose our steps carefully lest we trample a good food source. The stinging nettles were tall, nearly too tall for harvest, so we snipped the tops of the youngest, tenderest plants. Chickweed flourished among the miner's lettuce. Huge thickets of thimbleberry, already budding out, towered above us on the hillside, and red elderberry in flower hung overhead. It was an orgy of wild foods. Kevin pulled a few thistles from the damp soil and demonstrated how to peel the lower stalk and boil the root (note to self: I really need to do a dedicated thistle post one of these days).

Andrea Blum Photo
Back at Gospel Flat we turned our attention to processing and cooking our catch. Everyone happily pitched in. The wine flowed. Kevin prepared a taste test of thistles, both raw and cooked, while the rest of us worked on the three main dishes of the day: oysters, soup, and salad. An appetizer of pan-fried oysters donated by Tomales Bay Oyster Company, dressed with a homemade aioli (thanks Kerry!) on Brick Maiden Bakery baguette, was devoured on the spot. Next came an enormous salad of miner's lettuce, chickweed, cat's ear, mallow, nasturtiums, wild onion, wild mustard flowers, and wild radish seed pods that filled an entire wash basin. Toasted walnuts, crumbled blue cheese from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese, and a raspberry vinaigrette added finishing touches to the salad.

Andrea Blum Photo
Meanwhile several volunteers chopped onions and garlic, peeled potatoes, and tended three kettles of Stinging Nettle Soup cooking on a propane stove on the back porch. Despite the early rain showers, the day was just getting better with each passing hour. We added a hearty pour of Straus Family cream to the soup and had at it.

Nothing beats tromping around in the woods in search of strange and often maligned plants and then transforming them into culinary marvels amidst a hubbub of wine and cheerful conversation. Coming together to nourish our minds and bodies was the order of the day. These are the basic underlying principles of community.

Photo Andrea Blum
Foraging is often seen as a survival skill, a way for the individual to go it alone in a harsh environment and still prosper. Though I value my alone time for art, contemplation, spiritual renewal, or any number of other things—and have indulged this solitary life for months at a time in the wilderness—at the end of the day I would never renounce my need or desire to be among other people, to share in ideas and joys, to participate in the human drama. For me, foraging is not a path to isolation—it's a way to connect.

I've been supremely disappointed in our U.S. Supreme Court in recent years as it seems to thumb its judicial nose at the very concept of community in America, as if liberty can only be defined as the individual giving the finger to everyone else. Clearly, since our institutions are failing us, it's up to us, the people, to create community—and to hold onto it dearly.