Thursday, January 31, 2008

Super Easy Wild Chanterelle Stuffing

I like Sunday roasts so much that I have them pretty much any day of the week. Wednesday was roast night this week: a plump free-range chicken. It's de rigeur in our household to have a side dish of stuffing with a bird. Often we'll use wild chanterelles as a flavor accent in the stuffing, but this time around we made them the centerpiece. The beauty of this stuffing is that it's super easy—aside from a bunch of chopping—and yet has that complex air of fancier concoctions. The toasted hazelnuts, with their satisfying crunch, go a long way in this respect. Also, if I'm making a stuffing that doesn't include either sausage or dried fruit, I prefer my breadcrumbs finely crumbled, not big and chunky. But that's just me. Do what you like.

1 med onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
2 med carrots (or 1 large), chopped
4 tbsp butter
4 slices sandwich bread, toasted and finely crumbled
2 cooked cups chopped and sauteed chanterelles
1/4 cup hazelnuts, oven toasted and chopped
chicken stock
salt & pepper, to taste

Sauté onions in butter for a minute or two, then add carrots and celery. Cook 5 minutes, then add chanterelles. Salt and pepper. When sauteed vegetables are soft, mix into bowl with breadcrumbs and hazelnuts. Add enough stock to thoroughly moisten. There should be enough stuffing to line a greased 8" x 8" baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees covered for 30 minutes, then uncovered for another 15 minutes or until desired crispness.

The Hunt Continues

A truffle tip lead me south of Olympia, where I encountered a few inches of snow at an elevation of 400 feet—and no suitable truffle habitat. Perhaps a decoy to throw me off the scent? These trufflers are a shady lot, I had to remind myself. Chicanery notwithstanding, it made for a fine eight-mile hike. Exploring new country is half the fun of foraging. Like anyone else, I'd prefer to come home with a full crokersack, but one can't complain about a day spent in the woods rather than behind a desk. Besides, I did make some notations on my map: The chanterelle mushroom habitat looked excellent, with thick mats of salal and ferns beneath second-growth fir. I'll be back on my mountain bike in the fall.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

O Calamari, wherefore art thou, Calamari?

The squid gods must be appeased. Can we get some virgins out to Pier 86, please? Seriously. This winter has been as dismal for squid jigging as I can remember. In several nights at the jig, my best effort is a baker's dozen of the tentacled buggers—a far cry from the full two-gallon buckets of previous years. Who or what is to blame? La Niña? El Niño? George Bush? The continuing decline of Puget Sound? The Seattle P-I's 5-part series on the continuing decline of Puget Sound (how dare they, whine the Seattle boosters and would-be polluters)? Maybe it's just the weather. Seems it's either freezing cold, gale-force windy, or drenching rain. Whatever happened to those balmy overcast winter nights?

I got to the public pier around 9:30 p.m. last night. It was 38 degrees and howling. Waves crashed on the rocks. Two other jiggers were braving the elements, their hoods flapping in the wind: a Taiwanese man named Tom and his wife. They had driven all the way from Woodinville and put in nearly two hours at the gusty pier. In their bucket they had a grand total of two squid for their effort. His 'n' hers.

I stayed for about ten minutes and half a dozen casts, long enough to admire the lit up cityscape across the bay and listen to the otherworldly sounds of a ship being loaded at the grain terminal. Then Tom shut off his portable spotlight and the three of us left together, talking about those epic nights of full buckets in 2006.

Map Quest

My maps arrived. Now, as my friend Caryn would say, I can get orientated.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources, not my most favorite state agency, for its history of over-zealous resource extraction and the mindless yoking of one resource (public schools) to another (timber), nevertheless offers a screaming deal on maps to several state forests. The maps are $6 each, or $20 for a set of six (including tax).

Though mostly cut over during the timber go-go years, the state forests are regenerating (visit Tiger Mountain just outside Seattle for an example of what a logged forest can do if left alone for a few decades) and they have ample trail systems. More to the point, they're mostly low elevation (compared to wilderness areas) and offer excellent foraging for wild fungi, greens, and berries. They can also be confusing places to visit because of the crazy-quilt patterns of old roads, railways, and trails, so a good map is indispensable if you plan to explore off the beaten path. More immediately, I'm hoping these maps will give me some ideas about where to look for truffles once this cold spell moves through.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Break an Egg

A light dusting of snow on the ground calls for a proper breakfast: Six-egg omelet with Tillamook cheddar and sauteed chanterelles. The chanties, dry-sauteed before freezing in the fall, provided a sweet taste of the Skykomish drainage, which might have augured well for a day of steelhead fishing...but that light dusting in Seattle suggested other pursuits higher still. The way I ski—as a graduate of the Warpo School for Downhill Thrashing—I'm lucky I only broke the eggs today. Check out those sprigs of pale and spotted parsley in the picture above; not happy after being smothered in the white stuff on our back porch.

To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of omelets—in this case it's more of a delivery vehicle for the chanterelles, and after inventorying our freezer the other day it occurred to me that I had better step up the 'shroom consumption or we'll still have this past fall's harvest hanging around next August.

Putting Up Chanterelles

Chanties keep well in the freezer if they're sauteed first and then vacuum-packed. I use two methods of prepping them for storage: The first is the dry-saute, in which the rough-cut chanterelles are added to a red-hot, ungreased skillet. They pop and squeak as soon as they hit the pan and you have to stir constantly so the edges don't burn. The object is to quickly cook out all the moisture for better storage. Dry-sauteed chanterelles are perfect for recipes that don't require much liquid—omelets, stuffings, etc. The other method is what I call the wet-saute for lack of a better name, in which the chanties are lightly sauteed in a generous amount of butter, then frozen in the liquid. Wet-sauteed chanterelles will be gloppy when defrosted, but if used in, say, a pasta cream sauce the difference between wet and dry is negligible.

Next up: Roast Chicken with Chanterelle Stuffing; Farfalle and Chanterelle Casserole (from James Villas' Crazy for Casseroles); and Cream of Chanterelle Soup.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

We're International!

Time out for a quick self-congratulatory woot-woot. Here at FOTL (or should it simply be FAT?) we're still getting our feet wet and engaging in what industry mucky-mucks might call a "soft launch." But, according to Google Analytics, such modest, below-the-radar behavior didn't prevent a visit from a certain personage of rare breeding and intellect (or just a poor, misguided soul) from none other than the Sicilian port of Augusta, Italy. Maybe our visitor smelled the porcini we'll be trotting out for an upcoming post...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Paying Out the Last Silver

With a heavy heart (and salivating chops) I defrosted the last of my silver salmon this afternoon. According to my laundry marker scrawl on the shrinkwrap, this fish was caught September 9th, a Sunday. I actually remember that day, because I caught two silvers within a span of 15 minutes. It had been a lazy Sunday and I didn't show up at the beach until right before low tide, which was around noon. The sun was out, but it was windy, with uncharacteristically large waves crashing on the cobbles. I had to take my place at the end of the line, far from the point, and, I was sure, far from the sweet spot. Because it was Sunday few of the regulars were around, just a bunch of weekend warriors tossing their lures out and hardly bothering to reel them back in. They didn’t expect to catch anything, I could see that right away. They were hiding from chores and honey-do lists.

Just then I saw an interesting sight through my polarized lenses: plain as day, a pod of silvers zipped by in the curl of a wave mere yards offshore, fin to fin like a squadron of Blue Angels in tight formation. I turned to the guy next me. Am I seeing things? He couldn’t summon the energy to answer and robotically cast his line way over the salmon, fifty yards out to sea (this was better than painting the garage, that’s for sure). A few minutes later and the squadron was back. I put my lure in front of the pod, just a few yards out. A fish peeled off the group and hammered it in less than a foot of water. Seconds later I had a six-pound silver on the beach.

The guy next to me was surprised. “Wow, you got one,” he said, as if we were all assembled there for some obscure reason that had yet to be revealed to us. Five minutes later and I had my second. A limit.

I guess we ate one of the two fish for dinner that night and froze the other for later. Now is later. The last of my freezer full of silver salmon.

In truth, this one has probably been in the freezer longer than is optimal. Three months, no problem. Almost five months? That requires my emergency "freezer burn marinade." Besides masking the burn without compromising the tender salmon flavor, it's ridiculously easy to make, taking about 30 seconds, including the time to rummage through my cabinets: one part Mongolian fire oil, two parts roasted sesame oil, and soy sauce to cover. Chopped garlic and ginger (or, in this case, rosemary) give it extra zing—and a couple minutes more prep time.

Such a marinade encourages a Pan-Asian presentation (I know, I know, we've seen enough of this sort of thing around these parts lately, but you work with what you've got). My usual sides are julienned vegetables—zucchini, squash, onions—sautéed in the same marinade, and jasmine rice or cous-cous. A salsa of diced red pepper, red onion, mango, and cilantro also pairs nicely.

The Hunt Begins

Yesterday I made my first scouting mission in search of truffles. No, not overpriced chocolates but those even more costly tuberous gems so prized in Europe for their culinary alchemy, the sort found mostly in gourmet food shops and fancy restaurants that, at peak ripeness, can smell like "a dirty whore" and drive epicures to madness.

Commonly gumball-sized, truffles are fungi that fruit beneath the soil in association with particular trees. The world's most famous truffles are the Perigord (or black) truffle of France and the Alba (or white) truffle of Italy. Black truffles have been described as fruity and spicy, with deep scents of chocolate, coffee, and other earthy flavors. White truffles are renowned for their overpowering aroma (the word "funky" comes to mind). When properly ripe, it only takes a small shaving of truffle to flavor a dish with a pungent kick of the earth. They're shaved over pasta, meats, and even mashed potatoes.

Only recently has the Pacific Northwest been recognized as a suitable place to harvest truffles, if not in the same rarified realm as France and Italy. Some chefs, notably James Beard, have suggested that our native truffles are just as kitchen-worthy as European truffles, but because the truffle culture here is young and inexperienced, wild truffles sold to market and on to restaurants and consumers are sometimes of dubious quality, either under-ripe or past their prime. This has hurt the culinary reputation of what are collectively known as "Oregon truffles."

Anyway, I once again find myself in a familiar fungal spot. Mushrooming and truffling are secretive pursuits, and rarely will someone give away information for free. You can spend all day researching on the Internet and have no clearer idea where to go than when you started; the public library is near useless. Even joining a mycological society can only get you so far. The bottom line is boots-on-the-ground trial and error. I have to remind myself that I learned how to find chanterelles, then morels, and both spring and fall king boletes. Each species was like starting over. This detective work is part of the fun, though, so I'm looking forward to my first truffle discovery. (Don't hold your breath!)

As for yesterday: It was a nice walk in the woods, but I never found the right forest conditions. Being a rare sunny winter day, I did get a nice photo of a sun-spotted clump of moss.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

More Thoughts on Razor Clams

My friend Trouthole thinks it's sacrilege to consign razor clams to a kettle of chowder, but I'm from New England originally and there are few higher expressions of good home cooking than a hearty chowder on a winter day. (Don't ask me about Manhattan.) That said, Trouthole has a point. No clam tastes better fried than the razor. I don't want to be overly provincial about this. I'll eat clams from all over the world—Cape Cod quahogs, Long Island littlenecks, New Jersey longnecks, British surf clams, Japanese manilas—but after discovering the meaty bivalve that Northwesterners have known about for millennia (going back to the first inhabitants) I have to concede that the crown goes to the razor.

This is no small claim coming from an uprooted Connecticut Yankee. Let's face it: New England has a monopoly on fried clams and clam shacks. There's a lot at stake here. Fried clams are to New England what barbecue is to the South, and like the barbecue wars, the region has its own family arguments about what constitutes a good fried clam. Generally speaking the clam is dipped in liquid (usually evaporated milk) and then rolled in some sort of flour (breadcrumbs, cornmeal, plain flour, or a combination) before deep frying. Whether or not to include the algae-packed stomach is one of the central squabbles in the tradition (this point being moot with razors, since they must be cleaned before cooking). If the clams are fresh and succulent, few foods compare.

Some will call it heresy, others an indication of how far I've strayed. But I'll say it anyway: fried razor clams are the best. (The photo above was my lunch today: fried razor diggers, or feet, the anatomy of the clam used for digging into the sand, and the tenderest part.) Too often the clams of the East Coast, especially if not dug and shucked that day, are unobtrusive enough that a person with no particular love of clams—or an abiding taste for Styrofoam—can order a basket without fear for his undiscerning palate. Granted, the conditions of the clam shack where he orders that basket will be far superior to the simulacra we have here on the West Coast. But history and atmosphere notwithstanding, I still urge my Compatriots of the Clam from Ipswich and Essex, from Narragansett and Kennebunkport, to journey west and try a fresh razor clam in its native habitat. These golden beauties are positively ebullient with the essence of clam, the experience not unlike gulping down raw oysters: a sweet, delirious taste of the sea.

One last thought: razor clamming reminds me of that great Henry Weinhard's beer commercial from several years back. A bunch of young slackers are on the dunes drinking Henry's. Goatees, lots of plaid. "Here come the hotties," one announces. Cut to a shot of the wind-swept beach with a cold, gray ocean backdrop—and a bunch of girls clad not in bikinis but in so many layers of foul-weather gear that they look like nothing so much as the Michelin tire man. Ah, the Northwest.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Honey, Get the Gun

The Ace Hardware in Ocean Shores, WA, had guns galore. You might say it was going great guns. I picked out a nice gray one, gun-metal gray, in fact, and then drove to the Porthole Pub for a bacon cheeseburger. An hour later the rain stopped and a few rays of sun snuck through the clouds—not that the weather would stop anyone today. By 2 p.m. the beach was already crowded. We drove out onto the hardpan sand like everyone else. Low tide was 3:58 p.m. I put my boots on, got the gun out, and wandered down among the people. The hooting and hollering had already begun. I took aim and fired.

Open season on razor clams!

Like Noodling for flatheads in the Delta, running a sap line in New England, or dropping a baited hook through a hole in the ice in the Great White North, digging razor clams is a peculiar and time-honored expression of regional identity. Golden-hued and shaped like a straight-edged razor, the Pacific razor clam (Siliqua patula, for “open pod”) makes its home along the sandy, storm-tossed beaches of the Northwest, from Pismo, California, to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, where they earn a living filtering plankton, particularly a species of diatom known as Attheya armatus.

Both humans and grizzly bears have a powerful taste for razor clams. Which brings us back to the clam gun. An ingenious device. Nothing more than a humble length of PVC or metal tube with a handle attached. Lacking a grizzly's sharp claws and hump of back muscle, the human clam digger must strike a pose with his gun like a hard hat-wearing jackhammerer, then work his tube several inches down into the wet sand before closing a vent on the handle. With suction he can now pull up a core of sand—and, if he’s skilled, a razor clam secreted within.

Overkill, you say? Razor clams are fast. Go ahead and laugh. Reports vary, but one researcher clocked a razor clam burying itself at a rate of an inch per second. At that pace, I refuse to entertain snide remarks about fair chase. These tubes are by far the weapons of choice for extracting the clams. Wherever you go you hear clammers referring to their “guns,” but in truth the term was originally coined to describe a small, angled shovel invented in the 1940s and used for the same purpose, and there are old-school clammers who will eagerly correct you if you call your tube a gun. But everyone does, and so did I.

A limit of razor clams (15 per day in Washington state) may not seem like a lot on paper, but these clams can be monstrous, and one with a six-inch shell surely has more meat on it than a small quail. (The clams to the right, both shucked and one cleaned, are just average sized.)

For both fish and clam chowders I hew closely to the classic New England recipe outlined by Mark Bittman in How to Cook Everything, which happens to be the same recipe used by my grandmother Mimi on the Cape, although unlike both Bittman and Mimi, I prefer using a generous roux of melted butter and flour to thicken the chowder. However, I’ll never go back to my earliest love of the whipped and creamy style so thick you can spread it on toast points, not since working in my youth at a Martha’s Vineyard restaurant famous for its chowder. Between us, that miraculous, float-a-cherry-on-top creaminess didn’t come from any particular technique or wizardry in the kitchen; it came from giant cans labeled “Chowder Base.”