Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Dept. of Sick and Wrong

If the trout are lost, smash the state.
—Tom McGuane

Today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a disturbing story about the chemicals and heavy metals found in our last best places. The levels are off the charts.

The report comes from a six-year study out today that examined pollution levels in eight western parks.

Quote: "We're looking at some of the most pristine areas left in North America that are under the protection of the national parks, and we're finding some alarming results," said Dixon Landers, a senior scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency's National Health and Environmental Effects Laboratory.

Trout from Olympic National Park recorded some of the highest mercury levels measured in the study and were considered unsafe for human consumption. Fish caught at Golden Lake in Mount Rainier National Park sported the highest levels of—ahem—flame retardants (PBDEs).

Quote: Among the report's more surprising results were signs that some male fish were "feminized." For years researchers have linked female egg proteins in male fish with the presence of obvious estrogen sources, such as birth control in sewage waste. In the park study, the protein was found in some of the fish with the highest levels of chemicals that can mimic hormones—including PBDEs.

FOTL is very unhappy about this report. FOTL doesn't buy trout from behind a refrigerated glass case or trout wrapped in plastic or even trout from a restaurant. FOTL wouldn't order Truite au Bleu from the most famous French restaurant where Truite au Bleu is the specialty, M.F.K. Fisher be damned. In short, FOTL doesn't do farmed fish. FOTL catches his own wild trout in the backcountry and cooks it up proper.

And if the trout are toxic waste dumps, what about the mushrooms? Fungi are famous for concentrating chemicals and heavy metals in the environment. Should we be avoiding those gifts of the earth like the plague too?

There's only one recourse: Get involved. Make change happen.

Pasta alle Vongole

Shhhh: Never was a show-stopper so easy to prepare. Spaghetti with Clams, or Pasta alle Vongole as it's known in Italian, has the hallmarks of a classic dish: fresh shellfish glistening atop a feathery bed of linguini with accents of red tomato and green parsley to draw the eye. The key is live clams (the Vongole of the title); don't even attempt with canned clams. Fresh, live clams taste better, and it's more fun to dig out the meat and suck the juices from the shells. Anthony Bourdain writes about the power—and simplicity—of a winning Pasta alle Vongole in Kitchen Confidential. My preparation is similar, which is to say: quick and easy.

Add a pound of linguini to boiling salted water. Meanwhile, in a deep pan or pot over medium heat, saute a diced shallot and at least 1 tbsp of chopped garlic in a 1/4 cup of olive oil. De-glaze with a half cup of white wine. Add a generous pinch of red pepper flakes and a few rough-cut plum tomatoes. Salt to taste. (Optional: Add a pinch of dried tarragon.) Stir and raise the heat. Add four dozen or more littlenecks—preferably clams you've dug yourself—and cover. Remove the pasta when two-thirds cooked and add to sauce as clams begin to open. (This is the perfect moment to make use of your fancy pasta cooker; if your timing is off you can let the collander of pasta sit out of the water until it's time, then dunk quickly before adding to the clam sauce.) Stir well. When all clams are open, mix in a loose cup of chopped Italian parsley. The linguini should be al dente. Serve immediately with garlic bread and salad. Serves 4 (or 2 at my house). Salute!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Po' Boy Makeup Date

Regrets ... I have a few. Like that time I was too hung over at Geoff Coffey's Nawlins bachelor bacchanal to partake in the Acme wake-up call. The Acme is a legendary oyster house in the French Quarter, known above all for its oyster po' boys. What is a po' boy, you ask? The "poor boy," or po' boy for short, is a traditional Louisiana sandwich served on a French roll or baguette. The usual ingredients are shredded lettuce, thinly sliced tomatoes, and some sort of meat, often fried shrimp or oysters. The derivation of the term is disputed. One theory holds that the name po' boy comes from a 1929 streetcar strike, when a streetcar conductor-turned-restaurateur fed his former colleagues—called "poor boys"—free sandwiches from his shop.

The oyster po' boy is also known variously as an oyster loaf or "Peace Maker." Men carousing about town have traditionally brought home a Peace Maker to their wives at the end of a late night. If you read Calvin Trillin, you will be convinced that few foods on this earth rival a good oyster loaf—whether it's used as a peace offering or not—and few places are more skilled in its preparation than the Acme Oyster House.

Recently I've been reading a lot of Trillin, and each mention of the Acme sends me wistfully back to that head-splitting morning when I was capable of ordering nothing more than a Bloody Mary. (At least I was in good company: my friend Warpo, who wore a lime-green leisure suit for 72 straight hours that weekend, also ordered an unaccompanied Bloody.) It was a weak showing for sure. I suppose one day I'll be back to taste what I missed. In the meantime, I'll make do with my own creation (Seattle, it should be admitted, shares almost nothing with the free-wheeling Big Easy except good seafood), using freshly foraged oysters from my backyard.

Oyster Po' Boy

Dip oysters in egg, then batter with a mixture of mostly cornmeal, a little flour, and spices. The "shake and bake" method of battering is easiest, which is to say: do it in a plastic baggie to get all those flaps and folds evenly battered. Fry in oil and/or butter and remove to paper towels. Spread mayo, tartar, remoulade (or any combination thereof) on a French roll or baguette and pile with shredded lettuce, thinly sliced tomatoes, and the fried oysters. Drizzle with hot sauce. Pickles, onions, and whatever other condiments you prefer are optional. Serve with French fries and a suitable hair-of-the-dog beverage. (The one above was my lunch yesterday; no hair of the dog necessary, thank you.)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Sunshine Daydream

Did last week really happen? Props to the weather gods for giving us Nor'westerners a break. I celebrated over the weekend by taking the kids to the beach, where we did our part to harvest non-native species. Both the Manila clam (Venerupis philippinarum) and the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) are East Asian bivalves that were introduced into Puget Sound. In fact, the introduction was a twofer: the first Manila clams were imported by accident with Japanese oyster seed early last century.

Though I didn't look too closely, I probably got some native littlenecks (Protothaca staminea) in my limit as well. The littlenecks look similar to the Manilas, with the same crosshatching pattern of concentric rings and radiating ridges on the shell, although they tend to be paler and less oblong in shape, and the tips of their siphons are fused. While the natives are usually buried four or more inches beneath the substrate, the Manilas—with their short siphons—are shallow burrowers ... and we thank them for that. Even a two-year-old can get a limit!

A new yellow sign at the beach warned of the dangers of eating uncooked shellfish. I hate to see these signs. Like the white county signs ("Proposed Land Use") proliferating along the urban-wild interface, nothing good can come of this signage. Every few years, it seems, we have to travel farther afield to find clean beaches and edible shellfish. This particular spot has been our go-to beach for the last year. The view is great, there's plenty of room to spread out, both clams and oysters are available at low tide, and it's open almost year-round. I always bring a couple good beers and a lemon so I can eat a few oysters right off the beach. Today was no different, despite the sign. Vibriosis be damned.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Morels on the Brain

Hear that buzzing sound? Right now all across the country an army of zealots is preparing for the next campaign. Forget Obamomania—I'm talking about Morel Madness.

At this very moment some lucky hunter in Southern California might be spying one of those early "beauty bark" morels in a suburban parking lot. Soon reports will march up the West Coast and come in from the South. By April the lower Midwest will be into 'em in a big way and in May—the official Morel Month in the crazed upper Midwestern states—that low buzzing sound will become a roar, as festivals and contests kick off from Boyne City to Muscoda. You can follow the progress here. They're talking in Missouri and Iowa, in West Virginia and Illinois, even in New York and Nebraska.

Here in the West morels are little more peculiar in their fruiting habits—a subject for a future post. In the meantime, like a brewer who tipples his last batch while tending the wort, I've been indulging my own stirrings of morel mania.

Morel & Moth Cream Sauce

Ever since discovering Moth Fest '08 in one of my bags of dried morels picked last spring at the Tripod burn, I've been nervously checking up on the surviving morels to see if any of the infected are still around. It's like an entomological version of 28 Weeks Later. First, I made sure the uninfected bags were sequestered far away from the scene of the crime. Then I quarantined the others. Last week I had to dispose of a fair quantity of wormy morels. The moth larvae preferred the largest specimens because they could burrow easily into the hollow interiors and nestle into deep pits to pupate. Smaller morels were mostly left alone.

After pacing around and inspecting the bag of quarantined mushrooms several times a day—holding the bag up to the light, shaking it a little—I finally decided I couldn't wait to see if I'd missed any incubating eggs and cooked up the entire batch. The usual target of a morel cream sauce is a thick veal chop, but I didn't have time to go searching for dead baby cow in this heavily PC-policed town, so I settled for a Spencer cut of "natural beef."

A morel cream sauce is one of the great pleasures of winter—and it's surprisingly simple to make. All you do is reconstitute the dried morels in warm water, then saute them with diced shallot in butter. De-glaze with a splash of white wine and slowly add beef stock, the leftover mushroom water, and heavy cream, then heat until the sauce reaches desired thickness. A pinch of tarragon adds depth. Moth eggs and larvae are strictly optional.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Razor Clam Cakes

With another razor clam dig scheduled for early March, it's time to put a dent in the freezer backlog. One of the few knocks against razor clams is that they toughen up once frozen. This problem can be solved by tenderizing the clams with a mallet or choosing recipes that work with previously frozen clams. I adapted this recipe from a posting I found on Chowhound, adding sauteed onions and red peppers to the mix. The food processor takes care of the tenderizing. Ingredients listed below are guidelines (I wasn't really paying attention to amounts, and you can adjust easily to your own tastes). To the eye, the finished product looks like a standard crab cake—but you'll be surprised by the intense clam flavor. For seafood lovers only.

1/2 heaping cup razor clams
1/2 small onion, diced
1/4 red pepper, diced
4 tbsp bread crumbs
1 egg

1. Sauté the onion and pepper in butter.
2. Roughly chop clams and several sprigs of parsley in food processor.
3. Combine clam-parsley mix with sauteed vegetables, bread crumbs, and egg. Salt and pepper to taste. (I add a few sprinkles of Cajun's Choice.)
4. Squeeze some lemon juice in the mixture and form into patties.
5. Fry quickly in butter.

Makes 4 small cakes. Serves 2 for dinner or 4 for appetizer.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Snow Day

FOTL has been off playing in the record accumulation for the last few days. Even so, spring is right around the corner, which means it's time to start cleaning out the freezer at home to free up space. Expect a flurry of cooking soon...

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Out, Damned Moth!

Disaster has struck: those pesky kitchen cupboard moths—you know, the little brown ones always flying out of cereal boxes—busted into my double-zipped gallon bag of dried morels picked at last year's Tripod burn. They made a mess of things. Silk everywhere. Larvae inching around. Morels in tatters. I salvaged what I could, but several meal's worth had to be chucked. Luckily I have more bags, like the one pictured above, but still.

I've made some inquiries and will be purchasing large glass mason jars with rubber gaskets and clamps, asap—a purchase I've been meaning to make for years and will finally get around to now that it's too late, kinda like legislation to prevent mortgage foreclosure.

Food storage is of paramount importance to the forager. I've got a standup freezer that I picked up for zero dollars (the guy just wanted it out of his garage). Right now it's filled with smoked salmon and shad, pink salmon fillets, shad fillets, shad roe, razor clams, squid, fish stock, chanterelle mushrooms, hedgehog mushrooms, and a bunch of other things. It was perfect for the quarter organic cow I bought from Skagit River Ranch a couple years ago. If I was a hunter, with birds, deer, and elk to store, I'd need another freezer, but this one will do for now even though it's a bit dinged up and needs to be defrosted every few months.

A vacuum-sealer like the FoodSaver is another key part of the equation. Air, with its free-floating microbes waiting to feast on whatever they can get their grubby claws into, is the enemy. Fish fillets can last for months if vacuum-sealed (although they're best when used within three months) while mushrooms...let's just say I'm still working through chanties with '06 on the label.

I get a nice warm feeling when the wild food processing is just about complete and it's time to break out the vacuum-sealer. Labeling the bags with a laundry pen (species, date, harvest location) brings me back to the pleasure of the foraging itself. Dividing up the food into bags makes me think ahead to all the cooking I'll do. Then, watching the air get sucked out of the bags as the plastic tightens and forms around my catch is a strangely satisfying exclamation on the day. It's usually late at night by now: time to arrange the food parcels in the freezer and go to bed, knowing an abundance of food gathered and caught with my own hands awaits.

* * *

Did I write that last paragraph? That was a few hours ago. In retrospect even I have to wonder what sort of fungi I'm putting up.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Coming Soon: Upriver Brights

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is forecasting a run of 269,300 upper Columbia River spring chinook this year, the third highest run since 1977. Of course, WDFW has been wrong before, so here at FOTL we won't be holding our breath—but we will be thinking about getting in on the action.

Apparently the getting should be good, because the state fish commission voted last week to re-jigger the catch allocations—in favor of recreational anglers. This is somewhat complicated stuff, but the bottom line is this: Columbia River wild spring chinook are listed under the Endangered Species Act; only 2 percent of the wild run can suffer mortality in the fishery for the hatchery spring chinook. Once that quota is reached, the fishery is closed. Under the new rules, the quota will be weighted toward recreational anglers vs. commercial at 65-35 percent.

Fishing chat boards all over the Northwest have been in full rejoice mode over the run numbers. The upper Columbia River spring chinook, known as "upriver brights," are among the most coveted of all the salmon. Sure, we hear about well marketed Alaskan salmon like Copper River sockeye and Yukon chinook, but ask salmon connoisseurs and commercial fishermen what race of salmon they'd most like to slap on the barbecue and you'll hear a nearly unanimous vote for Columbia springers. The only problem is that most years there isn't a big enough run to open a significant fishery.

Because the springers enter the river earlier and travel farther than almost any other race of salmon, they've evolved a life history that enables them to survive in a freshwater environment longer than is usual. This results in nickel-bright fish well up into the system, fish with a high fat content (read: flavor) and nice firm flesh. Before the Columbia and its major tribs were turned into a series of slackwater reservoirs for hydropower, irrigation, barging, and flood-control, the system famously produced strains of giant chinook that migrated deep into the mountain streams of Idaho, including the notorious "June hogs," which could tip the scales in excess of 100 pounds!

Native Americans revered the spring chinook. With the “First Salmon Ceremony,” a ritual common to many of the Northwestern tribes, they offered their respects at the beginning of the run to the Salmon People who sent their ambassadors up the rivers each year to nourish the tribes. The first salmon was captured and brought to the village as an honored guest, where it was ritualistically prepared and eaten by all members of the community. In this way, the tribe hoped the salmon would feel welcome and well treated and would return again. The skeleton of the first salmon was then floated back downriver so it could receive a dignified burial and reincarnation.

We'll be keeping our eye on how this highly touted fishery plays out. It's a serious gear show, so here at FOTL—primarily a fly-flinging outfit—we have some boning up to do. More to come...

(The photo above by D. Ryan/AP shows spring chinook navigating the Bonneville Dam fish ladder.)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

I've Seen the Future ... and It Has Six Legs!

Today's New York Times magazine has a brief but intriguing article on the food of the future: "Man Bites Insect," by Sam Nejame.

Money quote: "Why douse fields with pesticides if the bugs we kill are more nutritious than the crops they eat?"

The article features a Rhode Island community college writing teacher who has made it his mission to introduce the joys of entomophagy to the wider, bug-fearing public. Says David Gracer: "Insects can feed the world. Cows and pigs are the S.U.V.’s; bugs are the bicycles." You can visit Gracer's blog "Bugs for Dinner!" here, or check out his fledgling business Sunrise Land Shrimp here.

I'll have more to say on this subject in upcoming posts.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Hunt, Part 3

Although I like to eat—and cook—my foraging hobby owes more to a life-long interest in the natural world than to any sort of gastronomic ambition. This frequently puts me in odd company. Nature buffs, I'll readily admit, can be socially awkward. Many of them give the impression of relating better to plants and animals than to other people. Maybe this partially explains the trouble environmentalists have in communicating to the general public the need to protect our natural heritage. I used to lead bird watching trips for the local Audubon with my wife, trips that attracted a parade of strange characters. More recently we've become members of a mycological society. I can say without hesitation that mushroom people out-eccentric the birders in every way.

Yesterday I met three such mushroom people at a nearby state park to look for truffles. Two of them were accomplished mycologists; none had ever been truffling before. They pointed out beautiful specimens of the Mycena genus; we saw the deliquescing remains of Earthstars; the day-glo yellow swirls of Witch's Butter caught our attention. I even had my first bite of a Turkey Tail (see above: eaten raw, it's chewy like beef jerky, and as D. pointed out, the taste is, not surprisingly, "fungal"). The truffles eluded us, however. In a few spots the second-growth Douglas fir had the right ground structure and duff composition, but aside from a scattering of pine cone middens here and there it was clear that squirrels and other potential spore-spreading mammals were not very active in the area and were certainly not feasting on truffles. We scratched around in a couple places without finding much more than dozing millipedes (D. said the bugs smelled like almonds and I thought he might pop one in his mouth).

Just the same, it was a delightful and well spent afternoon with good people in the outdoors, and I learned quite a lot. I learned, for instance, that wild edible mushrooms are still tested all over Europe before going to market in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown (this is because mushrooms have the unfortunate tendency to concentrate heavy metals and other forms of environmental contamination). I learned that slug excrement can be a powerful stimulant—especially if the slug has been working a marijuana plantation. And I learned that a hardcore mycophagist will even eat old, soggy coral mushrooms if presented the opportunity. I passed on this apparent delicacy, making me realize I still had a ways to go before I joined the ranks of the truly hardcore.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Secret Ingredients

This post goes out to my dear reader in Augusta, Italy, where the value of "little pigs" is understood.

I'm a fan of secret ingredients—just as long as I'm in on the gig. Secret ingredients can be exotic, hard to find, or, as in this case, curveballs. For two years running now, maybe longer, the Puget Sound Mycological Society's annual exhibit has employed a certain chef to whip up countless mushroom dishes for its cooking demonstrations, including a wonderful Cream of Chanterelle Soup. This year I collared the cook during a moment of weakness and extracted the recipe. The secret ingredient that puts this soup over the top is not the nutmeg (although the spice adds an extra dimension for sure) and it's not the chanterelles, as velvety smooth and sweet as they are (a secret ingredient can't be the main ingredient, after all). No, the secret ingredient in this chanterelle soup is an entirely different species of mushroom that lifts the soup out of mere excellence and raises it to the sublime: Boletus edulis, the king bolete—known to Italians as porcini, or "little pigs." The porcini have been dried and aged to concentrate the flavor, then pulverized into dust before being reconstituted in warm water. The resulting wet mush is like a double-shot of the earth itself.

Italians have enjoyed the hearty properties of porcini for centuries. They use them to flavor soups, stews, and sauces with an earthy bass note that cannot be duplicated with any other ingredient, fungal or otherwise. King boletes fruit throughout the temperate regions of the world, although we are fortunate in the American West to have a noteworthy abundance while in traditional European hunting grounds the king, like many other mushroom species (including chanterelles) is increasingly hard to find. Spruce forests in particular are places to look. The largest concentrations of king boletes I've ever encountered have been in the montane forests of Colorado. Yesterday's Cream of Chanterelle Soup was made with king boletes from the North Cascades and chanterelles from Oregon's Rogue River Canyon. Ideally the chanties should be fresh out of the woods; frozen chanterelles such as these are acceptable provided they've been properly stored. The last time I made this soup, for the annual Yakima River Burning Pram, a buxom fly-fisher who called herself Trout Girl took a spoonful and asked me if I was married. Such is the magic of this fairly simple recipe.

Cream of Chanterelle Soup

6 tbsp butter
1 med onion, diced
1 lb fresh chanterelles, diced (frozen dry-sauteed is acceptable; see this post)
1 - 3 oz. dried porcini, rehydrated in 1/2 - 1 cup hot water
1/4 cup flour
4 cups beef stock
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
salt to taste
1 1/2 - 2 cups heavy cream

1. Melt butter in large pot. Add onions and cook over medium heat until caramelized.
2. Add chanterelles, raise heat, cook 5 minutes, stirring.
3. Pulverize porcini into dust with food processor and rehydrate.
4. Blend in flour with sauteed mushrooms and onions. Add stock slowly. Add porcini mush and any leftover water.
5. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer 5 minutes. Add spices.
6. Lower heat and add cream.

Serves 4 - 6

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

To Eat or Not to Eat?

That is the question for the forager—and with fungi in particular. The mushroom above is Amanita muscaria, perhaps the best known mushroom in the world, the toadstool of gnomes and fairies, the inspiration behind Lewis Caroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the image recast ad nauseam on countless articles of household kitsch across the land. Resplendent in red with a white dotting of warts, A. muscaria is the child's choice of mushroom to draw and the adult cartoonist's go-to meme for a setting of deep, dark woods. Everyone knows it's poisonous, right?

In this country, aside from a few pockets of Italian or Eastern European heritage, it is standard practice to associate wild mushrooms with the skull and crossbones on a tincture of poison. Eat a mushroom not bought in the supermarket and you'll be getting your stomach pumped. Of course this is nonsense, but even within that eccentric band of toadstool-tasters known as mycophagists, certain species continue to exert a sort of super-fungal fear. A. muscaria's reputation is not unfounded: nomadic Siberian tradesmen to this day deliberately consume the mushroom for its psychoactive properties—and their reindeer eat it too! Some ethnobotanists believe that the nifty Christmas sideshow known as "Santa Claus" is derived from such pagan rites of the far north. Get it? Jolly man dressed in red and white ... flying reindeer ... Ho ho ho!

But what about A. muscaria's culinary value? For a long time now I've been hearing whisperings within the mushroom community that the hallucinatory toadstool of Gordon Wasson and a parade of proto-hippies prior to the "discovery" of less unpredictable psilocybes and LSD is in fact a delicious mushroom for the table—if prepared properly. A recent chat on a board I frequent unearthed this interesting page about eating A. muscaria.

The question remains: To eat or not to eat? Stay tuned.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Razor Clam Redux

WDFW has posted a news release about a tentatively scheduled razor clam dig this week. If the marine toxin tests are acceptable, Twin Harbors will open for four late-evening digs between February 6-9, while Long Beach will open on Feb. 8 and 9.

A little history about these tests: In the summer of 1961, hundreds of sooty shearwaters, a pelagic bird species that mostly eats fish and comes ashore only to breed, invaded the town of Capitola, California. They attacked people, crashed windows, and wreaked havoc. It is thought that this event inspired Alfred Hitchcock to make The Birds. Scientists speculate the culprit may have been a marine toxin known as domoic acid. The toxin was first discovered in Pacific shellfish in 1991 and led to immediate harvest closures. Razor clam digging in Washington was banned for a year. Domoic acid doesn’t seem to bother the fish and shellfish it infects, but in humans and other animals high up the food chain it enters the brain and warps nerve signals. The human illness is known as amnesic shellfish poisoning and symptoms include headache, dizziness, confusion, loss of short-term-memory, motor weakness, seizures, cardiac arrhythmia, and coma. High doses can even lead to death. There is no antidote.

The toxin is responsible for several deaths in North America. In 1998, 400 California sea lions were killed by domoic acid. State biologists must regularly test razor samplings from up and down the coast before they can announce an opening. So next time you tuck into a juicy fried razor clam, thank your humble state fisheries biologist.