Saturday, August 30, 2008


FOTL's berry bonanza continues unabated. The other day I happened upon what is perhaps my favorite of all the wild Rubus: the western raspberry, or blackcap (Rubus leucodermis). Closely related to the eastern raspberry, it tastes a lot like a cultivated raspberry, with a nod to blackberries and other wilder instincts. In fact, a ripe blackcap could almost be confused for a kinder, gentler blackberry, were it not for its shape—it parts from the bush with the typical thimble-like shape of a raspberry, and like its cultivated kin, the texture is velvety soft.

I don't see wild raspberries very often. In the PNW, they seem to favor the sort of areas most hikers try to avoid: clearcuts, old burns, and other disturbed areas with full exposure. On this particular hillside I probably could have picked a coffee cup's worth if I had wanted to trudge up and down among the burned stumps and kinnickkinnick. Rarely do I see them in shady oases. It might be time to learn more about these berries because they're so tasty. If you pick a lot of blackcaps, give FOTL a holler; I'm not interested in your secret spots, just the general conditions and berry densities you've encountered.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Silver & Gold

I feel like Yukon Cornelius on Christmas! A silver salmon at dawn and golden chanterelles by dusk. You can't ask for better lucre than that, not in my book.

The silver was nothing to brag about—a small resident salmon caught at a local beach that made a good meal for the kids. The chanties came from a quick jaunt out to the foothills. It's been raining clams and oysters in the Puget Sound region for the last week and I figured there'd be some early gold in them thar hills. Sure enough, my usual spot produced a nice haul. If this weather continues, we're in for a serious fall of shroomery. The salmon forecast, on the other hand, is up for grabs.

Here's a killer chanterelle recipe that's much easier to make than it looks.

Chicken and Chanterelles in Tomato Madeira Sauce

1. Saute diced shallot and garlic in olive oil. Add chopped chanterelles and cook until mushrooms release their water. Season to taste. Meanwhile add penne pasta to salted boiling water.

2. Add 2 tablespoons of tomato paste to sauce and stir. In a separate pan, fry pounded-thin and floured chicken cutlets in butter.

3. Finish tomato-chanterelle sauce with madeira wine and add water as necessary.

4. Serve sauce over chicken over pasta, and sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Jamberry Land

Backpacking with a seven-year-old and a three-year-old is always an adventure. Little did we know we were embarking on a trip into Jamberry Land. Mountain thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus) are popping in my corner of the republic, and though we did our usual bush-to-bush reconnaissance, eating berries as we hiked up the canyon, on the trek back down the next day I was determined to bring a taste of thimble home.

As I mentioned in an earlier paean to the Rubus genus, thimbles don't have much of a shelf life, like almost zero, usually falling apart in your hand before even hitting your tongue, which is why you never see them for sale. They're a wild treat, meant to be enjoyed in the wild.

Or you can make jam. A seasoned thimbleberry picker knows this can take a while. Thimbleberries don't take over like blackberries, and they don't fruit in profusion. A good stalk might have a few ripe berries on it. But because they don't have thorns you can wander willy-nilly through a thimbleberry patch—provided you don't mind not seeing your feet and traversing what is more often a squirrelly mass of old winter-killed canes rather than solid ground.

Watch your step and keep a lookout for any furry brown ears poking out of the foliage. Reciting the kiddie-friendly rhymes of Bruce Degen's Jamberry helps pass the time. "Raspberry, Jazzberry, Razzmatazzberry, Berryband, Merryband, Jamming in Berryland."

Thimbleberry Jam

Thimbleberries are naturally high in pectin, so all you need is a 1:1 ratio of sugar to berries and a tablespoon or two of lemon juice, depending on the size of your batch. We had a packed pint of berries to which I added a little over 2 cups of sugar and 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice.

First, boil the berries to desired viscosity, then add the sugar and lemon and bring to a boil for a minute. You might get some foam at the top; skim off if you wish. The jam is ready to be poured or ladled into sterilized jars for canning. Secure the lids and give the jars a 10-minute bath in boiling water. If you've never canned before, read how to at

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Huckleberry Hounds

Screw on your berry snout because the time is now to sniff out one of the great treats of late summer. By general consensus among the berry cognoscenti, the western huckleberry enjoys a position at the pinnacle of berry crops across the brakes of North America. East Coast blueberries, long since domesticated and hybridized into amusement park proportions for lowest common denominator taste buds, may be the sweetest of the Vacciniums, but the wild huckleberry, with its complex sparring of sucrose and tang, is the berry of record for true aficionados. And while FOTL can't consider himself an aficionado yet (he's only been picking huckleberries off and on for a mere two decades), he knows 'em when he sees 'em.

Last weekend we captained the Loaf down to one of the most storied berry patches in the land, the Indian Heaven Wilderness in the center of the volcanic triangle of Hood, Adams, and St. Helens. Indian Heaven is a seismic plateau of lavaflows and ancient, long-foundering cinder cones, a snowtrap in winter and a meltwater sponge through the summer—conditions that make it a Mosquito Heaven for sure, and a Huckleberry Heaven of tall-tale grandeur as well. For hundreds, probably thousands of years the Yakama and Klickitat tribes gathered here in summer to hunt, fish, pick berries, play games, and race horses. The Indian Racecourse is still around, as are the great berry fields, an accident of fire ecology that was later accentuated by purposeful fires set by the Indians themselves to choke out competing groundcover and keep the canopy open.

Among famous berry-picking locales (a few that come to mind include Glacier NP in Montana and the Blue Mountains in northeast Oregon), Indian Heaven has to be the most prolific I've ever seen, with some of the biggest and tastiest berries to be found anywhere. This year the berries are 2-3 weeks late in much of the Northwest due to lingering snowpack and a hard spring, so the season was just getting going. We came from the north, a long slog on forest roads 25, 90, 30, and 24, arriving finally at Sawtooth Mountain flanking the northern end of Indian Heaven and the beginning of Huckleberry Nirvana. Indians picked along the roadside, using improvised milk jugs with lanyards to free up both hands. A sign on the east side of the road laid out the terms of engagement (see image above). Just past the PCT we came upon this view of Mt. Adams to the northeast.

Washington and Oregon host a dozen species of huckleberries. Two of the most prominent (and the two we're pretty sure we picked) are the thin-leaved huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) and the oval-leaved huckleberry (Vaccinium ovalfolium). V. membranaceum has very large, sweet purple berries; these are the berries sought after by most pickers because of their size and taste. The other, V. ovalfolium, looks more like a small bleuberry with a slightly glaucous waxy sheen; they're smaller in size, though a good bush can be covered with scores of them, and the flavor is tarter, making V. ovalfolium a preferred huckleberry for jams and jellies. You can see the differences in size and color between the two species in the video and image below.

If you go a-huckleberrying, do yourself a favor and fashion a proper bucket that can hang around your neck. A word of warning though: I know of a guy, an experienced ex-forest service employee, who was picking Oregon grape berries with a similar leashed bucket. He was picking so fast he inadvertently scooped an entire bees' nest into the bucket. As the mad bees started swarming over the berries he saw his error and tried to run away but the bucket naturally followed him. Throwing it did no good. Lots of screaming and running in circles ensued. Finally he had to concede to the reality of the leash and lift the lanyard over his head, effectively putting his face right in the bucket. Good thing it was early morning and the bees still couldn't fly; he escaped without a sting.

If you're in my neck of the woods, the Gifford Pinchot NF puts out an excellent brochure on huckleberry picking that answers many general questions about regulations, biology, history, and also includes a map (!) to some of the better patches along forest service roads.

Since our return with a few gallons of huckleberries, we've vacuum-sealed and frozen most of our catch, and used the rest either to make cobblers and pancakes or to eat simply, unadorned. I'll try to get a pie recipe posted soon, but first I've gotta get me some lard!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Blackberry Cobbler

It's blackberry time. Initially we were dismayed to discover the city had whacked a few of our favorite nearby berry-picking spots—probably with good reason, because if cockroaches or lichens don't inherit the earth, Himalayan blackberries will—but it didn't take long to locate new berry brakes. Foraging right out the back door in a major metropolitan area is one of those activities that reminds you nature bats last.

While the berries may be late, like everything else this summer, they aren't lacking in robustness (can't say the same about this year's tomato crop). The first flush always has some of the biggest specimens on display, usually high and out of reach, though we still had plenty of plump, juicy monsters at kid level. I like to pick a percentage of less ripened berries as well, as you can see in the image at right; they hold their form nicely in a pie or cobbler and add a touch of color variation.

I'm always amazed that more urban dwellers aren't doing this. The berries are there for the taking! Joggers, power-walkers, and bikers zipped right on by. A few curious pedestrians stopped to see what the fuss was, and even one brave father let his son pick a few berries next to us before hurrying him along the path. Note to parents: Kids love berries! They love to pick 'em themselves. They love blackberry cobbler too. And they don't gripe about how much butter goes into a cobbler, not like their maladjusted elders...

Butter-Worshiper's Blackberry Cobbler

Over the years we've tried any number of different cobbler recipes, and yet I always find myself returning to the sort of presentation you might find in a small-town diner. If you could care less how many grams of fat are in your dessert (it's dessert for crissakes!), this is for you. (Codified by Mark Bittman in How to Cook Everything.)

4-5 cups blackberries
1 cup sugar
8 tbsp unsalted butter (1 stick), cold and cut into small pieces
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Toss berries with half the sugar and spread in greased 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan.

2. Combine flour, baking powder, salt, and remaining sugar in bowl. Mix in cold butter pieces with a pastry blender until well blended. By hand, beat in egg and vanilla.

3. Drop mixture on fruit by the spoonful; do not spread. Bake until topping is golden yellow, 35 to 45 minutes. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Coming Soon: More berry action! Went to Indian Heaven Wilderness this weekend and made off like huckleberry bandits.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Crab Cakes

Bagged a few more crabs the other day but got seasick in the process. That's one of the risks of free-diving. Or maybe it's just my constitution. The Sound was kinda rough and visibility was terrible, so I felt lucky getting anything at all. Afterwards, waiting to pick up my kid at camp, I fell asleep in the car. Someone looking for a parking space must have seen me because they kept honking—those little half-honks, like "hey there, are you gonna move?" Pissed me off enough that I went back to sleep. I had crabs swimming around in my trunk; despite the salt head, life was good.

Anyway, peel some Dungeness crab and you'll know why it's $25/lb. in the market. It can seem like a daunting task, but once you learn the drill it's not so hard. I used crab that was already boiled, cleaned, and halved. You can see in some of the pictures that the tips of the exposed meat are slightly yellowed, an indication of previously frozen crab. This won't make any difference in your cakes; maybe Alice Waters could tell the difference but I sure can't, not if the crab has been properly frozen and thawed in a reasonable time-frame (in this case, a couple weeks).

How to Peel Dungeness Crab

Step 1: Make a tall drink, because as Lou Reed says in '69 Live, "this is gonna go on for a little settle back and pull up your cushions." My summertime choice is a boat drink, the recipe to which I'll get around to posting one of these bleary mornings.

Step 2: Take a half crab and pull off a leg segment. The best meat is where the leg joins the body, so make sure to carefully separate the segments where they're connected.

Step 3: The rest is busy work: peeling the shell and exhuming the meat. Make sure you open each knuckle—there's good meat in there. The claws may require a cracker or a swift blow from an empty beer bottle. At the end of the peeling you'll have a pile of sweet crab meat and an even larger pile—a small midden, you might say—of shell. Whatever you do, try not to get any little pieces of shell in your meat; biting into a succulent crab cake only to crunch your teeth on some annoying bit of shell detracts from the experience for obvious reasons.

Finspot's Crab Cakes

This isn't really my recipe; it's pretty standard. The key is in the meat to filler ratio. Adjust however you like, but always keep the crab as king.

1/2 large onion, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
parsely, chopped
1 egg
1-2 tbsp mayo
Worcestershire sauce
1/2 lemon
1/2 cup crackermeal or breadcrumbs
Old Bay seasoning

Slapping the cakes together is pretty easy in comparison to the peeling. Saute chopped onion and chopped red bell pepper in plenty of butter. (For 2 medium-sized crabs I used half a pepper and half a Walla Walla sweet onion.) Season to taste. Remove onion-pepper mixture to bowl. Add several pinches of chopped parsley, one egg, mayo, a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce, few shakes of Old Bay, and the juice from a half lemon. Stir together while adding crackermeal or breadcrumbs. Mix in crab last for chunky cakes. Form into patties and refrigerate on wax paper for 20 minutes or so for firmness. Lastly, saute in butter in a large frying pan, with enough room between the cakes so you can easily flip 'em; fry in batches with a smaller pan.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Boiled Crab

As with Maine lobsters, cooking Dungeness crab intimidates many folks. Think Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, with crustaceans all over the kitchen floor. Really, it's not so tough if you follow these simple steps. And don't forget your mantra...

Step 1: Plunge live crab in a pot of salted boiling water. Listen for screams. Kidding! That's just air whistling out of the shell.

Step 2: After 10-15 minutes or so, depending on the quality of the boil, remove crab to newspapers. Let cool.

Step 3: Lift the carapace off by leveraging from hindquarters. This is most easily accomplished by finding the narrow triangular flap on the crab's abdomen (see image at right) and pulling it back. Now you can get a finger under the back of the carapace and wedge it off. Pull away as much goop (that's a technical term) with the shell as possible and dispose. Clean gills and any other additional goop still clinging to remainder of crab.

Step 4: Break crab down middle into two mirror sections, as shown in image at top. The crab is now ready for eating or freezing. In my next post I'll outline the steps for peeling the rest of the crab and making crab cakes.

A note about access: I nearly learned a hard lesson about waterfront access while diving for these crabs. I'd already bagged my limit of five and was swimming back to the beach when I heard a vehicle honking repeatedly. Now try to picture a sole swimmer, decked out in wetsuit, mask, and snorkel popping up like a seal, going, "Who, me?"

Yeah, me.

The guy got out of his official looking pickup and asked me if that was my van in the parking lot. Yup. "Your lucky day," he said. "I was about to lock the gate behind you." Turns out this spot I've been diving off for a decade or more is currently embroiled in some sort of dispute with an adjacent property owned by the military, and the upshot is that there's no public access right now—this despite the park benches and other improvements. I just happened to slip in while the gate was open.

Well, I swam my skinny ass back to the beach as fast as I could and offered the guy a crab for his trouble. Bottom line: know your access points.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Rubus Rules

Rubus: Not a country bumpkin but rather a much loved genus in the rose family. Rubus includes familiar old favorites such as blackberries, raspberries, dewberries, cloudberries, and a host of other deliciously sweet berries that beg to be popped in the mouth one after the other; baked in pies; and reduced to scrumptious sauces. Cultivation and hybridization have introduced myriad other varieties: loganberries (raspberry x blackberry), tayberries (loganberry x raspberry), and boysenberries (loganberry x raspberry x blackberry), to name a few.

Rubus "berries" are easy to recognize by their compound fruit, woody stems, and thorns. In botanical terms, the fruit is not a berry at all but what is known as an aggregate of drupelets. And the really great thing about Rubus? None of the fruits in this genus is poisonous. Those thorns are the only drawback. Try cutting the fingertips off an old pair of work gloves if you plan to pick lots of Rubus, especially nasty ones like the Himalayan blackberry.

With all my travels this summer, I missed the salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) fruiting, at least at lower elevations, and nearly missed the thimbleberry hour. Thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus), native to western North America, are an extraordinary treat: delicate to an absurd degree and complex tasting, with more than a hint of raspberry. Marty says she likes the "yeasty aftertaste," which doesn't strike me as the biggest selling point, but says much about the complexity. Unfortunately, they have a shelf life of like one minute. The best way to carry thimbleberries home is in your stomach—they're a hand-to-mouth berry more than almost any other, falling apart even before they're off the vine. Thimbleberry jam is reputed to be wonderful, but I wouldn't know: the berries never last longer than seconds in my hands.

Yesterday, while walking in a biological preserve among rare coastal old-growth trees, we picked the last of the thimbleberries and then loaded up on native blackberries. It was telling that the natives grew so well in the preserve; usually we find mostly non-native Himalayan blackberries among the ruins of the natural world. (BTW, in my previous post I misspoke: Our native blackberries in the Pacific Northwest are more accurately categorized as dewberries. Unlike Himalayan blackberries and other true blackberry species, they don't produce canes; dewberry plants are rightly called brambles, which is to say they grow more horizontally than vertically, creeping among the undergrowth with trailing vines that hug the ground. Though the term "bramble" is now used commonly to evoke any sort of thorny bush, cane blackberries are not technically brambles. So there you go.)

Like thimbleberries and salmonberries, I never seem to get enough dewberries to put up, but that's okay because when most of these native berries are nearly done fruiting, an imported Northwest tradition is just catching fire...

When we get back from the islands, the Himalayan blackberries—those nastified and decidedly non-bramble brambles—should be on-line all over Seattle. This year I plan to do the berries right: in pie crusts made with lard. I have permission from my normally lard-averse other half who is beginning to see the light on some of these culinary conundrums. More soon.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Island Time

My apologies for the paucity of posts lately—FOTL has been on another summer sabbatical, this one sponsored by Mrs. Finspot (she of the Blue Positive blog) and her deathless poetry, which has landed us in Washington's San Juan Islands for a stint at a writing residency. Whether in the tropics or more northerly latitudes, Island Time is a peculiar warbling of the solar clock that is most accurately expressed in the procrastinator's maxim "why do today what you can put off until tomorrow."

That and the fact that wi-fi here is next to non-existent. Those are my excuses and I'm sticking to 'em.

In any event, traveling offers a chance to tap into the local forage, putting a new spin on what otherwise might be old hat. Yesterday we explored English Camp on the northern tip of San Juan Island, where the shooting of a pig in 1859 nearly provoked war between the U.S. and Great Britain.

On the trail to Bell Point we browsed on the seldom-seen native Pacific blackberry (Rubus ursinus), also called the California blackberry. Less vicious (and less prolific) than the Himalayan blackberry (R. armeniacus), our native blackberries are ground-hugging creepers; conversely, all stout, self-supporting cane-like brambles are non-native exotic weeds.

Nearby Oregon grape was also in full berry mode. These are seriously sour berries, although some foragers (not FOTL) will make jams and jellies with them and even pies, given enough sugar.

At the point we knew right away we were in the right spot: several other clammers were working the shoreline, all of them sporting little inflatable rafts that they'd used to motor over from boats moored in the harbor. There are more boats than people in this neck of the woods, which means the clams are big and plentiful.

Mostly we got native littlenecks, Manila clams, and mussels, but we saw lots of geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck) shows. Some people, notably the Japanese, are partial to geoducks. Digging down five feet to recover a clam with meat the consistency of shoe leather is not part of FOTL's repertoire at this point, but maybe it's all in the cooking.

Finally, in a little bay near Roche Harbor we found what I'm pretty sure is known colloquially as "sea beans," a member of the Salicornia genus of salt-tolerant plants that live in marshes, mangroves, and along beaches and are supposed to be edible and delicious. If anyone has experience cooking or eating sea beans, I'd like to hear from you.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Crab Feed

When friends come from out of town to visit, I like to give them the opportunity to feel awkward, get dirty, and maybe even impale themselves on a sharp object. I feed them crab. A fresh-caught mess of Dungeness crabs in the shell offers all these advantages, not to mention the reward of sweet, succulent meat that is as much a feature of the West Coast as the blue crab is of the East—only better.

The setup is simple. Newspaper on table, boiled crab on newspaper, beer in hand. There was a time when I melted sticks of butter and left a can of Old Bay out, but I’m over such garish additives now. Crab wants to be eaten neat.

My approach to this time-honored Puget Sound ritual is a little different from most. For one thing, I don’t own a boat. I don’t even have a crab pot. No, I get in the cold cold water—on the crab's turf. A wetsuit and snorkel are my crab-catching accoutrements. But don't be fooled. While neoprene gloves may seem safe to the uninitiated, woe to the blasé crab-catcher who allows a careless pinkie to stray into the pinchers of an angry Dungeness...

It's crab season. For now I'm stock-piling crabs in the freezer, but I'll post some recipes soon.