Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Final Forage of '08

I took advantage of a gap in the weather yesterday to shanghai Riley and his best friend Alec to our go-to shellfish beach. The snow had mostly melted and high winds and rain were yet to arrive. Even crossing the Tacoma Narrows Bridge the two second-graders ignored the world outside, too wrapped up in trading their Pokemon cards to admire the dramatic view of Puget Sound's glacial pinch. They haggled in the back seat like a couple of old geezers.

But once on the clam beds the twenty-first century's kiddie distractions began to slip away: Pokemon characters and Nintendo gave way to the visceral pleasures of working a shovel into the sand and uncovering a nice littleneck clam. The boys found sand dollars, caught a sculpin, and engineered a network of canals and locks as the tide receded. They dug clams and found mussels. They got a laugh out of a thieving gull that pilfered my container of shucked oysters the moment I turned my back.

When we got home, Alec proudly presented his mom with a limit of clams. I've got plans for our own haul: full limits of clams, mussels, and oysters will be part of tonight's feast, which will incorporate a few other wild delicacies from 2008. More on that next year.

Happy New Year everyone!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Dinner

Few meals are as pleasurable as those spent with good friends in a cozy home while outside Mother Nature is pitching a fit of truly memorable proportions. I learned a few fun facts this holiday. The city of Seattle possesses a total of 27 snowplows and we can count on a white Christmas 7 percent of the time. Folks are getting cranky about all this ice and snow—none moreso than those unfortunate Metro riders—but I say bring it on. I'm originally from New England and haven't enjoyed a Christmas like this in ages. Even in New England, it seems, they don't make snow like they used to.

Not so this year. The white stuff is general across the continent. Apparently all of Canada is snowed in for the first time since the early 70s. I certainly can't remember a more festive Hanukwanzmas holiday in Seattle. We've been sledding up a storm at the local hill and building all manner of igloos, forts, and snowmen. Maybe commerce has ground to a halt but the dreams of children (and child-like adults!) are soaring.

Or were. The rain is back today and now the streets are really a slushy mess. Flood warnings have replaced snow warnings.

Last night we braved the horrendous driving conditions to head uptown to the home of old friends for one of those Christmas dinners that begins as soon as you walk in the door and hasn't really ended by the time you pack up the tired kids several hours later. An arsenal of champagnes, wines, and appertifs accompanied h'ors d'ouevres and multiple courses, and everyone joined in for the making.

Tipton, a former denizen of the snow-free La-La-Land, chose a menu from the superb Sunday Suppers at Lucques for the meal, which included a seafood course of Scallops with Chanterelles, Sherry, and Parsley Breadcrumbs. The chanties, a pound in all, came from my stash in the freezer. We briefly sauteed them in butter with a tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves and then added 2 pounds of scallops and a large chopped onion and stirred to coat the scallops before adding a cup of sherry and a cup of chicken stock. We let this bubble for a couple minutes to reduce, then added another tablespoon of thyme leaves and half a cup of heavy cream and killed the heat. Two tablespoons of chopped parsley finished the dish.

At the table we topped our portions with toasted breadcrumbs baked with chopped parsely, a step that seemed gratuitous at the time but turned out to be a wonderful addition of flavor and texture. The delicious broth was sopped up with crusty bread.

The rest of the menu (#25, in the "Winter" section) included an Onion Tart with Cantal, Applewood-smoked Bacon, and Herb Salad; Potato Puree with Horseradish Cream; and Braised Beef Short Ribs with Pearl Onions and Kale.

Hats off to Tipton and Bridget for their gracious and too-generous hosting. We'll be seeing them again for New Year's Eve, at our place, for a Paella feast to kick off a hope-filled 2009.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Nueva York Clam Dip

The powers that be have opened the fall/winter Washington razor clam season three weekends so far and I've missed them all. Good thing razors keep so well in the deep freeze. We've been busting out vacuum-sealed packets of last year's catch to keep pace with the comfort needs of the season, and while nothing beats a piping hot chowder on a wintry day, this Big Apple recipe for clam dip with a decidedly south-of-the-border twist is a close second if you have any leftover clams. As a pairing with potato chips and beer on a snowbound day of football-watching, it's just about perfect.

A single chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, minced, is enough to turn up the heat on what is ordinarily a fairly innocuous dip. Chopped cilantro, lime juice, and a garnish of festive red pepper and green scallions add extra zing. Otherwise it's the clams that puts gas in the tank. I can't remember where this recipe came from; now it's just a yellowed newspaper clipping taped to an index card. Chances are I got this from relatives down in Arkansas, who, despite being landlocked, know their football and their clam dips. Put this out at your Superbowl party with a couple bags of good chips (mine are Cape Cod, Tim's Cascade, or Kettle) and I guarantee you'll be throwing flags as you watch your guests lick the bowl before half-time.

18 littleneck clams or 6 razor clams
1 can of Rainier (Miller High Life is acceptable)
4 slices bacon, chopped
3 tbsp onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
3 tbsp sour cream (or Mexican crema)
3 tbsp cilantro, chopped
Juice of half a lime
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, minced
1/2 red pepper, diced
scallions, sliced for garnish
hot sauce to taste

1. With littleneck clams, steam open in beer, reserving 2 tablespoons of broth; if using frozen razor clams, thaw out and similarly save 2 tablespoons of liquor. Chop clams.

2. Fry bacon in skillet, then remove to paper towel with slotted spoon when crispy. Saute onion and garlic in bacon fat for a minute or two, then spoon into serving bowl. If using razor clams, saute in remaining fat for 5 minutes and add to bowl.

3. Whisk together softened cream cheese and sour cream in same bowl with clams, reserved clam juice, onions, garlic, bacon, cilantro, lime juice, chipotle pepper, half of diced red pepper, and a few dashes of hot sauce. Garnish with remaining diced red pepper and sliced scallions.

Yields about 2 cups.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Let It Snow!

Here at FOTL headquarters we're snowed in and loving it. This sort of storm hits Seattle only every few years. We've got a half-foot of the white stuff on the ground and it's still coming down. I went for a ski through the neighborhood this morning and then took the kids to the park for some epic sledding. Mrs. Finspot is about to take a x-c tour. The city is shut down.

It's times like this when you're thankful for that stash of dried porcini in the cupboard—the secret ingredient to maximum comfort food. As it happens, here at FOTL we have a new cookbook to play with, a gift from Mrs. Finspot: The Herb Farm Cookbook. Naturally the first thing I did with it was open to the index to find a recipe for porcini.

Braised Chicken with Leeks and Porcini

1/2 oz dried porcini, reconstituted in a cup of hot water for 30 minutes, then chopped
2 medium leeks
1 bouquet garni: 1 4-inch sprig fresh rosemary, 1 4-inch sprig fresh sage, 6 3-inch springs thyme, and 1 dried bay leaf
1 3-4 lb chicken, cut up
2 tbsp olive oil
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 tbsp fresh sage, chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

1. In a large, deep pan, brown chicken in oil, turning once or twice. Remove to platter.

2. Meanwhile cut off and discard the dark green leek tops. Slice remaining leeks lengthwise, then chop into half-moons down to the roots. Add leeks and chopped garlic to pan, cooking over medium-high heat until soft. Deglaze with wine. Add mushroom water and chopped porcini. Season with 1/2 tsp salt, then add bouquet garni. (The herbs in the garden were a little cold but still doable. I tied them together with a stout twig of thyme.) Bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Return chicken to pan and cook covered at a very low simmer, 50 minutes or so.

3. Transfer chicken to a platter and keep covered in warm oven. Discard bouquet garni. Stir chopped thyme and sage into pan. Raise heat to thicken sauce. Cook several minutes until desired consistency. Add parsley and cream. Return to a boil. Season and pour over chicken. Serve with egg noodles or potatoes. (We made fried new potatoes with garlic and kale.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Gifts for Foragers, #3

If you have a Santa Baby who checks off the priciest items on your list, you might consider a handheld GPS unit. Here at FOTL we've had our eye on the Garmin 60CSx for a while, but given the pear-shaped nature of the economy—and more specifically, Mrs. Claus's 401(k)—we're currying favor by leaving all big-ticket items off the list this year. That doesn't mean your own Secret Santa won't pony up close to $300 to keep you from getting lost in the woods.

By all accounts the new GPS units are far superior to those of just a few short years ago. They lock on satellites more easily, and track better under canopy cover. Safety notwithstanding, the real genius of the handheld GPS unit lies in its steel-trap memory. Unlike a foggy old forager, the computer chip remembers exactly where those epic mushroom patches and notellum fishing holes are located. Now if it could just find the missing 401(k)...

Monday, December 8, 2008

Made with Love

Normally I steer clear of our local southend Safeway (the mouse droppings on the shelves of the Asian aisle are kind of a deal-killer), but this weekend I knew I needed ingredients that I wouldn't find at just any Seattle market. Filé powder, for instance, and okra. Well, it turned out the seafood department was having a sale on Dungeness crab—$4/lb, which is half-price. Just about everyone in that cavernous place was there for the same reason as me: the weather's finally turned cold in the PNW and it's time to make gumbo.

While I didn't need crab—I've still got a few bags left in the freezer from my summer dives—I had to have fresh gulf shrimp, not the frozen spot prawns I've saved from the spring shrimping season. There were a half-dozen of us in line at the seafood counter and after a little chit-chat it was pretty clear we all had similar designs. It was also clear that I was the only born-Yankee in the bunch. One lady was originally from Baton Rouge, and the couple behind me called Shreveport home. There were some strong opinions about our endeavor. Even the guy behind the counter doling out the crabs and shrimp had something to say on the subject. A woman who was buying enough seafood and sausage to feed a congregation looked at me skeptically.

"You know how to make a roux, honey?"

"Sure," I said, trying to exude confidence in this crowd of gumbo connoisseurs. "Fat and flour, equal parts. It's all in the stirring."

She shook her head. "Love, baby. You've got to make it with love. It's a soul food thing."

Next stop was the sausage cooler. I had my heart set on Andouille. A woman dressed to the nines looked at my basket and guided me in another direction. Hot links, she advised. The couple from Shreveport ambled past and I hailed them over. They'd been talking about a secret ingredient in their stock. "What about these smoked ham hocks?" I asked, holding up a package of hocks. Someone else sidled up. He wanted to know if I was making a seafood gumbo or not. I said I was. "Put those hocks back," he nearly barked at me. "They're no good for a seafood stock." A lively argument ensued between the Shreveporters and this "born and raised in Orleans Parish" partisan about how to make the best stock. I made a mental note to try the hocks next time for a meat gumbo.

And there will be a next time. To be honest, this was my first gumbo and I wasn't exactly sure what I was making. I got inspired by a recipe in the current Food & Wine by chef Donald Link of Herbsaint in New Orleans (in a feature about a bunch of great party meals) and made a few changes for this West Coast forager's version. There are also plenty of resources on the Web, like this site and this one. Everyone up and down the Mississippi has their own family recipe. But the bottom line is this: You can make gumbo just about any way you want, provided you use okra and a roux. There's even disagreement about the traditional use of filé, which some say is a strictly winter ingredient when fresh okra isn't available. If there's one ingredient everyone agrees on it's this: love. Lots of it.

Dungeness Crab and Gulf Shrimp Gumbo


1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 onion, diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 small carrot, diced
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 lb shrimp, shelled (reserve the meat for later)
1 large or 2 small Dungeness crabs, cooked and cleaned (but not peeled)
2 quarts chicken stock
3 bay leaves

Saute the shrimp shells in oil until red and starting to brown. Stir in tomato paste and cook one minute. Add diced vegetables and saute another minute or two, stirring, before adding stock. (At this point you might want to substitute some clam juice for part of the chicken stock; I didn't have any on hand and wasn't about to pay $2.69 for an 8 oz. bottle when I get the clams and their juice for free.) Toss in the bay leaves and bring to a boil, then reduce heat. While the stock is simmering, peel your crab, adding shells as you go. This will help to flavor your stock if you opt out of the clam juice. Save the claws and a couple sections of unpeeled leg for later. I tear off the impossible-to-peel "pinkies" and throw them in whole. Simmer the stock for an hour or two, then strain and set aside (see photo at left; photo above shows the ingredients strained out of the stock).


Heat 1/2 cup of oil over moderate heat and slowly whisk in a 2/3 cup of flour. Stir regularly for 30 min. The roux should turn yellowish, then a golden brown. You may need to raise heat to get the final deep brown. Scrape into a dish for later.


2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1 can crushed tomatoes
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 lb okra, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
1 heaping tsp chili powder
1 heaping tsp paprika
1 heaping tsp dried oregano
1 heaping tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp white pepper
1 tbsp filé powder
shelled shrimp
peeled crab
hot links or other sausage
steamed rice

Saute onion, celery, and garlic in heavy pot until soft. Add the roux and cook over moderate heat until bubbling. Slowly stir in the stock and tomatoes. Reduce heat to low and simmer for an hour or two. In a skillet, saute the green pepper and okra in butter or oil and add spices. Deglaze with a splash of water or stock. Add to gumbo pot. At this point I also add the reserved crab claws and sliced hot links, then let simmer another hour. Just before serving add the shrimp and crab meat. Cook a couple minutes and ladle over rice with a sprinkling of chopped scallions. Serves 8.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Gifts for Foragers, #2

Surprise the mushroom hunter on your list with a gift from Fungi Perfecti. This clearing house for all things fungal offers oyster logs, growing kits, books, and much more, plus a cool ballcap that I wear myself. But if you're looking for that perfecti stocking-stuffer, you can't go wrong with a Rockwell stainless steel mushroom knife. The knife is rated with a blade edge of 54-56 and comes with a handy belt sheath for easy access. The bright yellow grip makes for easy visibility if you drop it on the ground (unless you drop it in a dense patch of golden chanterelles!), and coolest of all, the knife butt is adorned with a small stiff-bristled brush for field cleaning your catch.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Gifts for Foragers

It's that time of year. FOTL doesn't endorse Black Friday, hellish trips to malls, or other forms of conspicuous consumption (shopping gives him hives, truth be told), but it is traditionally a time of giving, so we'll be offering a few suggestions over the next few weeks for the forager on your list.

First up is the book Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobsen, an informative, witty, and fast-paced appraisal of the ostreaphagist landscape. Eating a raw oyster is about the most carnivorous act of feeding most of us westerners (as in hemisphere) will engage in during our lives. The oyster is still alive, after all, or it should be. But what pleasure and sensuality too! As the French poet Leon-Paul Fargue said, eating oysters is "like kissing the sea on the lips." This is a good time to be an ostreaphile. After centuries of decline during which the planet's original oyster beds were pillaged and polluted into near extinction, the oyster is making a comeback with new aquaculture techniques and a dedicated confederacy of shellfish farmers, improving water quality in the process. Jacobsen introduces us to the major species of oyster on the culinary stage, their commercial history, and the current state of oyster eating in the world.

Admittedly, Geography is more for the oyster eater than the forager, but for those of us lucky enough to live in places where wild oysters can still be gathered off the beach—primarily Florida, Louisiana, Washington, and B.C.—there's knowledge to be gained about what it is we're eating. For the rest of the oyster-slurping public, Geography is a primer—not unlike a wine guide—on the tastes and textures of the most famous—to extend the wine metaphor—oyster appellations around the world, and how to pair these inimitable bivalves with other foods and drinks.

As Jacobsen writes, "When you eat oysters, you wake up." Anyone who enjoys oysters will devour this book and then make tracks for the nearest fish market, raw bar, or oyster beach, senses alert in anticipation.