Friday, September 28, 2012

Hunter's Ed

The hunting memoir is becoming a regular feature of the spring and fall publishing seasons—even as the number of  hunters in the U.S. continues to decline as a percentage of the population.

This counter-intuitive development might be explained by the trendiness in all-things-foodie. Or it might say something about the changing demographic of today's hunters, who are looking for something more than just a how-to guide. Many of these new hunters haven't had the benefit of a mentor—a father or uncle to initiate them into what was once, generations ago, a rite of passage for nearly all American boys—and a growing number of these hunters are urban or female. The hunting memoir helps to fill this void. It's a vicarious ride with a knowledgeable hunting buddy, with waypoints of instruction along the route.

Two new books this season offer such rides, with much more than how-to information. Lily Raff McCaulou's journey from New York professional to Oregon hunter in The Call of the Mild will resonate with many readers, female or male, who are trying to reconnect with the natural world, whether via hunting or other outdoor pursuits. Steven Rinella's Meat Eater is a different sort of book, and while it dispenses all kinds of wisdom for would-be hunters, the pleasure is mostly in the telling, like listening to an old-timer spin yarns by the fire. (That Rinella is still in his thirties makes it all the more surprising.)

For McCaulou, a cross-country move to a new job as a reporter in Bend, Oregon, and a boyfriend (later husband) with a flyrod are the blood sport catalysts. He takes her fishing on Oregon's famed Deschutes River. She then takes it a few steps farther, picking up a firearm and learning how to hunt game birds and, eventually, larger, hoofed quarry. Like Georgia Pellegrini in Girl Hunter, McCaulou faces challenges specific to her gender.

But mainly her decision to hunt is more personal, with an added dose of food politics. She quotes what are now familiar statistics to anyone paying attention: According to the United Nations, 30 percent of the earth's land surface is used to raise meat (including the growing of grains for feed); 18 percent of greenhouse emissions are caused by the meat industry; the average American eats 241 pounds of meat per year. And yet, despite all that meat eating, we are more distanced than ever from the processes that make such a diet possible.
As a lifelong meat eater, I feel a responsibility to see for myself that uncomfortable thing that has always been at the heart of a human diet, since long before animals were domesticated and their upbringing industrialized: death.
It turns out that facing death in its many guises is at the core of McCaulou's memoir, and this stubborn fact of life is explored in some unexpected ways. Not so unexpectedly, the book culminates with a big game hunt, though the patience and detail with which it's recounted will be appreciated by neophyte hunters wondering what this moment of truth might be like.


Rinella's childhood, as revealed in Meat Eater, will be envied by many readers. One of three brothers, all close in age, he grew up in rural Michigan and had the run of a landscape that included woods, lakes, and semi-abandoned summer camps. There is a theme of resourcefulness throughout the book that, sadly, will strike many as anachronistic. Much of the pleasure in reading these hunting stories is contained in the process: the detailed descriptions of building a tree sit or breaking down an animal.

Rinella is an amiable narrator, with an easy-going voice and an eye for the telling detail. One of the things I like about his writing is what I call the moment of stunning weirdness—the image, turn of phrase, or even entire scene that takes you utterly by surprise. These moments are part of the enjoyment of reading. They grab you by the scruff of your neck and make you take notice. I'm thinking of a scene in Meat Eater when Rinella recollects his fondness—or maybe fascination is a better word—for muskrats. He describes their denning habits and then mentions that a bunch of them denned in an old float anchored in his family's pond. One of Rinella's tricks, he remembers, was to swim stealthily out to the float and ambush the muskrats, scattering them out into the open water. Then he'd "dive in after them and see how far I could chase them underwater before I had to come up for air."

This is a detail that tells us exactly what sort of kid Rinella was. In a few sentences he captures the mood of a rural childhood, with both the nascent hunter emerging and also the innocent curiosity-bordering-on-cruelty of youth. It's also the way he disarms the reader, so that past delinquencies that he owns up to (illegal trapping, fishing for spawning steelhead over their redds) can be written off as callow mistakes.

One of my favorite chapters is about fishing rather than hunting, and though I disagree with it's inferred conclusion (that catch-and-release fishing is, in a word, stupid), the progression from steelheading in the  Great Lakes to fly-fishing for bonefish during a nomadic, dirtbag month down in the Yucatan is a tour de force of good angling writing (i.e., we're treated to characters and their motivations rather than the mind-numbing repetition of "screaming reels").

What both of these books show is that, no matter what the numbers say about the popularity of hunting in our increasingly indoors-oriented society, words still matter—and the hunting memoir remains a vital part of our literary bookshelf.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Steak and Chanterelle Stroganoff

Golden chanterelles got off to a banging start this summer—and then 48 straight days of rainless weather stopped the flush cold. Here we are in late September and the chanterelle crop is barely limping along. That's why it's important, at least for us mushroom hunters on the West Coast, to know about another species of chanterelle, the white chanterelle.

I've said it before with huckleberries. There's an early huckleberry (the red) and a late huckleberry (the evergreen); there are low-elevation huckleberries (red and evergreen) and high-elevation huckleberries (thin-leaf and oval-leaf). There are 13 species of Vaccinium in Washington alone! The point is, if you want huckleberries—and who doesn't?—it's good to understand the many varieties, with their different habitats and calendars.

So, too, with chanterelles. There are early-fruiting spruce chanterelles and late-fruiting spruce chanterelles; there are spruce chanterelles on the coast associated with Sitka and spruce chanterelles in the mountains with Engelmann; there are Pacific golden chanterelles in the second-growth Douglas-fir, whites in the old-growth Douglas-fir, and mud hens in the oaks. There are others. Know your varieties.

White chanterelles, like lobster mushrooms, started fruiting right on schedule this year despite the lack of precip. Granted, they didn't emerge in droves, but they were in the usual habitats if you knew where to look.

I hunt for white chanterelles in older Douglas-fir forests, and though I have a feeling they're more apt to be found in drier forests (dry being a relative term), I'll also find them in some of the wettest places in Washington, too. Go figure. You have to look harder for whites. They hide under the duff and moss when they're young, and as a result they're usually dirtier than goldens. After a few good rains they can also become quite large and meaty. The white might be my favorite chanterelle for taste and aroma. Don't be put off by the bruising (see photo below); white chanterelles typically bruise when handled but this doesn't affect the taste or texture.


I take some heat in my family for making dinners that no one wants to eat. You might think that my kids are getting exposed to all kinds of wonderful foods—and you'd be correct—but more often than not they just want what the other kids their age are eating at home: mac 'n' cheese, tacos, hot dogs, etc. My son is a fiend for Tuna Surprise, which he cooks himself a couple times a week with the usual can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, a can of tuna, a can of button mushrooms, and a box of pasta. I tried wooing him with my smoked salmon version of this classic, and though it earned high marks, he goes back to the tried-and-true. My daughter, on the other hand, has declared herself a vegetarian at age seven, which is an entirely different kettle of fish (and, no, she's not a pescatarian, so she can't eat those fish either).

As my wife Martha reminds me, there's no reason to get uptight about their food proclivities as long as they're eating mostly healthy whole foods from local sources. The last thing you want to do is give a kid a food complex.

With all this in mind, I thought Martha's request for a Stroganoff with chanterelles was brilliant. Here was something the kids would surely love: comfort food with foraged mushrooms, plus locally sourced beef added for the meat eaters. Even the sour cream, from Tillamook, would be local. Great idea!

Yeah, great for the parents. We had a neighbor and her son over to join us. The three parents ended up eating all the Stroganoff while the three kids revolted and ended up chowing down on plain pasta with butter.

6 tbsp butter, divided
1 lb top sirloin, thinly sliced
1/3 cup shallots, chopped
1 lb chanterelles, sliced
1 cup sour cream
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1/2 cup white wine
splash cognac
salt and pepper
fresh parsley, chopped

1. Season beef with salt and pepper, then sauté in 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat in a large saucepan, cooking a minute or two before turning for another minute or two. Be careful not to overcook the beef. Remove to a bowl.

2. Sauté shallots in same pan until translucent, a couple minutes. Remove to same bowl with beef.

3. Add remaining butter to pan and sauté chanterelles several minutes. De-glaze with wine and cognac.

4. Reduce heat to low and add sour cream and mustard. Stir in a pinch of dried tarragon (or a loose tablespoon of chopped fresh). Return beef and shallots to pan and cook together another couple minutes before serving.

5. Serve over egg noodles. Garnish with paprika and parsley.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Oven-roasted Salmon with Herb Risotto and Olive-Tomato Tapenade

Fishing for silvers off Seattle has been good for the last couple weeks, and with the larger ocean-going fish now returning to Puget Sound, it's getting better. I lost a 10-pounder at the boat the other day. Most of the fish are the smaller resident coho, averaging four to five pounds.

Apparently there was some good action for kings earlier in the summer, too—until it got shut down—but I still think of silvers as our bread-and-butter fish. They're aggressive (i.e. susceptible to a fly or lure), they forage close to shore, and their bright red fillets are perfect for a quick grilling or oven-roasting.

Call me a Homer, but catching salmon within city limits is one of the great things about living in Seattle. It's a sweet feeling to get up early before work, or knock off work early, and string up the rod. Then, when you come home with a nice fish, you can say you've been working—you're putting food on the table.

For this dinner, I first scanned the garden: tomatoes and herbs were going crazy. I made a simple herb risotto using mostly marjoram and oregano plus a little thyme, and both cherry and roma tomatoes went into the tapenade. The salmon was oven-roasted and served over the risotto with a dollop of tapenade on top.

Herb Risotto

6 tbsp butter, divided
1 yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 tsp saffron threads
1 cup arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
4 - 5 cups chicken broth
4 tsp fresh mixed herbs, chopped

1. Stir saffron into cup of wine and set aside.
2. Warm chicken stock in a pot.
3. Saute onion and garlic in half the butter over medium heat until translucent.
4. Stir in rice, coating well. Allow to toast for a few minutes.
5. Add wine. Let it bubble up and absorb into rice before stirring.
6. Continue to add a ladleful or two of warm stock until rice is done. It should be both creamy and al dente.
7. Off heat, stir in remaining butter and herbs. Cover.

Olive-Tomato Tapenade

1 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 roma tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded, and chopped
1 tbsp lemon zest
1 tbsp capers
1/4 kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
2 tbsp lemon juice
dash balsamic vinegar, to taste

1. Saute shallot and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until translucent.
2. Add tomatoes and cook until they begin to break down.
3. Add lemon zest, capers, olives, and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper, and add a little balsamic.
4. Reduce to low heat and cook together for a few minutes. Serve warm.

Monday, September 10, 2012

On Weather and Mushrooms

It rained last night. Alas, Seattle didn't break its record for longest stretch without precip—51 days in the summer of 1951—but we came close at 48 days. Let the mushrooms rejoice.

A professional forager I know likes to stake out contrarian positions on just about every aspect of his profession. Rain, or lack thereof, is one of his favorite topics. When it comes to fungi, he says temperature is more important than moisture for most of the edible species.

This is a nuanced argument, so stay with me here. He concedes that moisture is important for volume, but it doesn't affect the timing as much as most recreational mushroom hunters believe. Yes, there are individual species that won't fruit without a timely rain (take a bow, fall mountain porcini), but while many hunters wait for their beloved precipitation, their patches are right on schedule, or at least quality patches in good habitats are on schedule. Marginal patches will always be adversely affected by any number of poor conditions.

The bottom line, he says, is that weather in the Pacific Northwest is more consistent than most people think, despite the usual claims of oddball this-and-that. "We get rain in June and our Septembers are usually nice." It rarely rains in August and November is always wet.

He proved his theory by taking me to a lobster mushroom patch at the end of August, just when Seattlites started getting an inkling that this dry spell was making a run for the record books. Despite the parched conditions, the lobsters looked prosperous—not as abundant as in some years, but large, bug-free, and delicious. (We also picked white chanterelles, which I'll post about another day.)

I wrote about lobster mushrooms in my September column for Seattle Magazine. Every season they rise a little more in my estimation, and my own personal appreciation seems to be in parallel with the larger culinary community because you see them on more and more restaurant menus year after year—and their value in the marketplace continues to grow.

Pan-seared Scallops with Lobster Mushrooms, Lobster Sauce & Indian Spices

To make this harvest season dish with its colors of late summer and early fall, plate a trio of pan-seared scallops over a bed of roasted vegetables and fungi—in this case, cubed butternut squash, sliced leeks, and diced lobster mushrooms—and punch it up with a drizzle of lobster sauce—that is, sauce made from the crustacean. With their hint of the sea, I like pairing lobster mushrooms with seafood.

I made a simple lobster sauce with lobster stock I had in the freezer. As a cup of the stock warmed in a pot, I made a quick roux with two tablespoons of melted butter and two tablespoons of flour, whisking until the roux began to darken to a nice golden color. Then I stirred in the stock until it was saucy. This made enough sauce for two. I roasted the squash, leeks, and mushrooms with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper and a healthy sprinkling of garam masala, baking at 400 degrees until the edges of the leeks and squash browned lightly. A scattering of chopped fresh cilantro completed the dish.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Taste of Place

A place is revealed by its food. One thinks of the great continental culinary revelations of Waverly Root in The Food of Italy and The Food of France, books that introduced many a reader to those cornerstones of Western cuisine and culture. Or the luscious double-shot of photography and ethnography that fuels the modern tour through Southeast Asia that is Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Hot Sour Salty Sweet.

There is so much good food writing with a geographic bent these days, whether straight up cookbook, memoir, or travelogue, that—for those of us with neither the time nor funds to amass the whole library—it's necessary to narrow the field. No surprise, then, that my shelf is weighted down by books with a wild edge. A little cottage industry of titles about foraging and wild foods seems to be emerging at the moment (or reemerging), and even titles with a more catholic sensibility see the sense of giving a nod toward nature's garden, especially if that nod conveys a sense of place.

Two books that I'm reading and cooking from right now come to mind: Jess Thomson's Pike Place Market Recipes, which examines a culture close to home, Seattle's iconic marketplace known for its brass pig and flying fish, and a locale less familiar to me, the upper Midwest of Brett Laidlaw's Trout Caviar: Recipes from a Northern Forager. (Full disclosure: Thomson recruited me as her mushroom sidekick for a walk through the market in her chapter "From the Slopes.")

Pike Place Market abounds with wild foods, from the salmon and shellfish that a tourist expects to find, to the less expected black truffles and stinging nettles harvested from woods just beyond the urban clamor (and sometimes within the city limits itself). Thomson understandably devotes an entire chapter to seafood—the first chapter, in fact—with notable dishes from nearby eateries such as Etta's famed Crab Cakes as well as a Cornmeal-crusted Pan-Fried Razor Clam dish gussied up by another local food company with a growing reputation, Mama Lil's pickled peppers.

How is it that this admittedly touristy marketplace with its many vendors became a synecdoche for Seattle? It's all about the local delicacies. Thomson explains how the theatrics of throwing fish, a Pike Place specialty, evolved into a more serious customer-seller interaction that culminated in 2011 with the market's decision to only sell sustainably caught fish, a move that both necessitates a greater reliance on what's available in the Pacific Northwest and consolidates the city's forward reputation on issues of sustainability.

Thomson's "From the Slopes" chapter begins with a section titled "I'd Tell You, But I'd Have To Kill You." This is where I show up, to take a fall stroll with Thomson through the market, admiring the bounty of Northwest fungi. We find black trumpets, hedgehogs, chanterelles, truffles, and a host of other gourmet edibles from the forests of Washington. Afterward we savor a meal at one of my favorite lunch spots, Lecosho, which Thomson highlights for their Wild Mushroom Tagliatelle, a recipe any home cook worth their Kosher salt can replicate with ease thanks to the author's user-friendly approach.

Thomson includes other categories such as "From the Butcher" and "From the Garden" as well as a chapter that namechecks local microbrews and wines, "From the Cellar." The introduction paints a history of the market—how it was originally built "in response to a rapid rise in produce prices in the early 1900s" and quickly became central to Seattle's sense of itself, how it was nearly lost in the years following Japanese internment during World War Two, and how it rebounded after a citywide vote that saved the market from redevelopment. Throughout is a reverence for ingredients identified with the Pacific Northwest and mouth-watering recipes to match.


In his introduction to Trout Caviar, Brett Laidlaw remembers entering local Minnesota woods "through a gap in the barbed-wire fence" of a neighbor to pick wild sumac, cattails, and gingerroot. As he got older and traveled farther afoot, Laidlaw picked blueberries and fished for walleye and northern pike. The titular trout would come later, when he picked up a flyrod. He learned new skills: smoking meat, fermenting vegetables, tapping trees for birch and maple syrup. Some might consider these old-school skills; to me, I'm reminded of the adage about the old becoming new again.

I'm not sure if I've ever been to Minnesota. Maybe once, in my younger years during a spate of cross-country drives, I might have passed through quickly. But no matter. I have a feeling for the place thanks to Laidlaw's evocative portrait and the foods he incorporates into his life, foods that speak to the mixed forests and turtle ponds and lush meadows of the upper Midwest.

Trout Caviar is divided into several sections based on the components of a feast: Starters, Salads, Soups, a variety of Main Courses (meat, fish, poultry), Desserts, and even Condiments. What binds these groupings is a sense of place and an emphasis on the wild, whether that be Lake Trout Chowder, a Ramps and Fiddleheads Tart, or a comfort bonanza such as Chanterelle and Steak Stroganoff. Foraged foods that I can only dream about, such as hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (Grifola frondosa) and wild rice, make well-deserved appearances.

Of course there's a recipe for Trout Caviar, too. Laidlaw does a lot of fishing in the Northern Woods. In his "Trout Caviar Manifesto" he boils down his thinking about local food this way: Our stuff is as good as anyone's stuff, and part of the reason that it's good is that it's ours. Such thinking might strike some readers as provincial and under-doggish, but to me Laidlaw has grabbed hold of one of the tenets of the emerging wild food movement: there are weird and wonderful foods all over America—indeed, all over the world—that are tied inextricably to a specific region, large or small, and entire foodways and cultures have grown up around these ingredients, including indelible variations on language and custom—the things that make us all different and interesting. Think of crawfish on the bayou or ramps in Appalachia or huckleberry camps in Oregon.

"We serve our trout caviar with dark bread or blini, good butter, sour cream or creme fraiche, and all due ceremony," Laidlaw writes. "Maybe some September I'll have such success on the trout stream that this little miracle will become old hat. It hasn't happened yet." And here's to hoping that old hat is never an ingredient in future meals. With a devotion to what's available for the table right out the back door, Laidlaw and Thomson's books give proof that a taste of place is a fulfilling way to live.