Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Good 'n' Plenty ('n' FREE)

We're nearing the peak of blackberry season here in Seattle. The Northwest is justly famous for its blackberries. For whatever reasons having to do with climate and temperament, the non-native Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) thrives in these parts, to the point of being an OBnoxious weed. Really, the only way you can keep it down is by running your own herd of goats. They take over abandoned lots, park margins, unkempt backyards, and just about any other nook and cranny where they can gain a foothold and spread their thorny canes.

But let's look at the good side. Blackberries are delicious. They effortlessly combine that sought-after one-two punch of pucker and sweet that is the holy grail for many a dessert chef. Discerning palates pay nearly as much for a carton of blackberries in season as the more delicate and finicky raspberry—yet unlike raspberries, blackberries are all over the city, free for the taking.

I'm continually amazed at how under-utilized this resource is. People, we're famous for our blackberries! Go get some. I usually combine blackberry picking with a swim in Lake Washington. They're at their sweetest and juiciest just as the region is at its hottest. Driving around the city, I see them pretty much everywhere. It's not like you have to travel to some distant neighborhood park or outer suburb to find them.

Blackberry Crumble

This is an easy recipe originally written for peaches. Use whatever fruit you want. The baking time seems long, but you want to make sure you get that crispy edge. Oven temps vary, so keep an eye on the topping; when it's nicely browned it's done.

4-5 cups fresh blackberries, rinsed
6 tbsp cold butter, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
3/4 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon

1. Grease an 8x8-inch baking dish. Layer bottom evenly with berries.

2. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut in butter with pastry blender or knife. Sprinkle over berries.

3. Bake at 375 degrees until lightly browned and crispy on top, about 45 minutes. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

By the way, Himalayan blackberries are available through much of North America, but if you happen to live in the Pacific Northwest, treat yourself to our native species, the trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus). Unlike it's argumentative cousin, the trailing blackberry doesn't grow from thick canes or pack such vicious thorns. You'll find it creeping along the ground in less disturbed areas where the non-native species hasn't had a chance to out-compete it. The fruit, many berry connoisseurs would say, is even more flavorful than the Himalayan, though it takes more work to gather a meal as they're not so plentiful.

In any case, blackberries of all species make a perfect summertime dessert on a hot evening. Don't forget the ice cream.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Crawdadfish Boil*

A good ol' Louisiana style crawdadfish* boil means a couple things to me. Above all, it means good times, like that first visit to New Orleans when my friend Tipton and I were driving cross-country and taking in a Cubs game at Wrigley. After a few tall ones in the bleachers we decided a detour due south made perfect sense and 24 hours later we were crossing the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway into the Big Easy and soon sitting in front of a mound of cooked crawfish at Franky & Johnny's—my first taste of the mudbug.

The other thing a boil means to me is disaster narrowly averted. My second visit to New Orleans (also during a cross-country adventure) was with Warpo. We caught Mardi Gras, or it caught us, and when it came time to flee we barely made it to the county line before the wheels fell off. Actually, it was the alternator. We pitched a tent on a dry spot in an otherwise boggy lowland haunted by a locquatious hoot-owl and hoofed it to a nearby barn on the side of the road where a local boil was in progress. Now maybe it was because our transport had failed us, or perhaps it was the mournful droop of weeping willows across fetid ground, or even those Poesque protestations from that blasted owl, but I was pretty convinced this might be our last meal. The bayou looked, sounded, and smelled ready to swallow us up for good. When I get nervous I eat, and on that night I ate like there was no tomorrow. Really, I'll never put away so many crawdadsfish* again. The next day, though, a new alternator materialized out of the swamp and we effected our escape to another Bermuda Triangle of sorts, Taos, NM, where the funky fresh Cadillac Seville shit the bed once more, a story for another time.

More recently, when my pal Bill told me that crawdadsfish* could be fished out of the reservoir near my folks' place in Colorado, I knew another boil was in the offing. It was our last weekend in the Rockies and I had friends coming up from Denver and Boulder. What better way to wind up a month-long getaway than a crawfish boil?

Cowboy showed up with plenty of Ska beer ("Lip up fatty!") and Betty brought her acerbic sense of humor, which goes well with lots of ice cold beer and crustaceans in the shell. Me, I set the traps Thursday night after fishing the Yampa River and picked them up the next morning. A feast of cat food and fish pellets did the job: We had poundage of the mudbugs scuttling around in the traps.

Lacking my usual spice cabinet, I picked up some Zatarain's liquid Shrimp & Crab Boil and the basic ingredients: Andouille sausage, corn, small red potatoes, mushrooms, onions, garlic, and a few lemons. We purged the crawdadsfish* with several changes of water; some say to use salt in this process (the crawdads don't like it and spit the salty water out, along with the usual mud and debris) but we found it unnecessary. Really, the only complicated part was the timing. You want to use a big stockpot and bring to a boil and cook for several minutes most of the ingredients and spices minus the crawdadsfish* and corn. Then you add the crawdadsfish* and boil for another 5 minutes or so before killing the heat and allowing everything to steep, covered, for at least 20 minutes to soak up the spices. The longer the spicier.

The problem in my mind was how to time the corn. I'm in the 5 to 7 minute camp. Among the many web sites I reviewed, such as this one, none seemed especially concerned about chewy, overcooked corn. Though the boil starts to get a little blurry in my memory at this point, I seem to remember we took some precautions, which involved keeping the ears of corn separate in the pot, removing them after 5 minutes of boil, and then returning them at the end for a few minutes of steeping. A wire basket helps in this task. In any event, the corn turned out perfect, with spiciness and crunch intact.

Per usual boil etiquette, we drained and poured the contents out on newspaper and feasted in the great outdoors. I don't have to tell you it was good. Eating crawdadsfish* is a primal experience along the lines of pig roasts, crab feeds, and other messy, carnivorous hoe-downs en plein air that everyone should try, except maybe vegans and vegetarians. Pinch tail, suck head, drink beer. Repeat. After recovering the next day, we cooked up the leftover crawdadsfish* in quesadillas with green chiles.

* According to my Tweet pal Anne: "Don't let a Loisiannan hear you say 'crawDAD'! It's crawfish, chere! :)"

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wild Mushroom Stuffed Brook Trout

Fishing is always at the top of the agenda when we visit my parents in Colorado. In years past my boy has demonstrated mastery of the Scooby-Doo rod, so this time out he insisted on a flyrod. I had visions of tangled line, a bird nest leader, and tears, but instead Riley threw a tight loop with his two-handed grip and effortlessly put a black woolly-bugger fly in the strike zone. The result: a beautiful brookie destined for the oven (not the ginormous rainbow in the photo at left, which was released unharmed).

Usually we pan-fry our trout. But with a haul of wild mushrooms gathered on a hike in the Gore Range the previous day, including oyster mushrooms and aspen boletes (known to locals as orange-caps), we decided a stuffed baked trout was the way to go.

A word about aspen boletes (Leccinum insigne): Most books and web sites list this species as edible. Coloradans regularly eat this common variety of porcini. However, the Colorado Mycological Society recommends caution. Every year the Rocky Mountain Poison Center receives complaints of gastro-intestinal distress following the ingestion of orange-caps, with some cases requiring hospitalization. In the Northwest there are similar complaints that derive from the consumption of Leccinum aurantiacum. I've talked to a mycologist who believes that a small percentage of the population at large—maybe just a few percent—is allergic to the genus Leccinum in general. Most people seem to eat these mushrooms without difficulty, and indeed, immigrants from mushroom-hunting cultures (e.g., Eastern Europeans) eat them with abandon. As with any new species of edible wild mushroom, it's recommended that you nibble on just a little bit (cooked of course) to make sure you're not allergic.

To make this recipe I had to de-bone my first trout, a technique I had never attempted because it's easier to remove the backbone and ribs after the fish is cooked. But a trout that has been fully de-boned and butterflied before cooking makes an elegant presentation, and a stuffed trout in particular begs for butterflying. I found this helpful YouTube video and then got to work.

For the recipe I used this one, and as you can see, even brazenly lifted the photographic composition. Note that I've changed the amounts to suit my tastes (more mushrooms, for instanse, and the addition of parsley) and instead of serving 8, my version is for 2.

2 pan-sized trouts, butterflied
2 pieces bacon
1/4 cup onion, diced
1/2 cup mushrooms, chopped
1 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 heaping tbsp parsley, chopped
1 slice bread, toasted and crumbled
lemon for juice and garnish
salt and pepper to taste

Fry the bacon and remove from pan when crispy. Crumble bacon into a bowl. Saute onion in bacon fat a couple minutes over medium heat, then add mushrooms and cook for another four or five minutes, making sure mushrooms expel their moisture. Add thyme and cook for one more minute. Spoon onion-mushroom mixture into bowl with bacon and add bread crumbs. Mix together. Squeeze lemon juice over butterflied trouts and season with salt and pepper. Spread half the stuffing onto lower half of one trout; repeat with other trout. Fold over each trout like a sandwich and secure with toothpicks. Place on greased foil in a broiling pan and bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.

Last time I saw the folks I cooked them Bourbon & Pecan Encrusted Trout. That was tasty, but the Stuffed Trout, we all agreed, was extra special. I'll be serving this to friends back in Seattle for sure.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pinch the Tail, Suck the Head

Good thing I have a family of foragers to back me up or I might starve.

We're on the last leg of our Western Odyssey, near Steamboat Springs, Colorado, visiting my parents. My friend Bill, who hooked us up with ice fishing gear last winter, was at the ready when we pulled into town with several crawfish traps and a bucket of bait. Thanks Bill!

I had big designs on a pond that turned out to be a bust, but meanwhile my boy Riley was already scoping out another spot and caught a crawdad by hand, making him the envy of several other neighborhood kids trying to net the feisty little beasts.

This one crustacean may be hardly a meal, but it was a big deal to an 8-year-old kid, who demonstrated good form in devouring his catch with Cajun gusto. And this one crawdad is also a sign of things to come. Stay tuned...

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Foraging a Bite of History

Hey everyone. If recent posts have lacked a, well that's because I've been on the road since the kids got out of school, traveling around the West. Pitstops have included the charming hamlet of Shasta, CA, and nearby Lassen Volcanic National Park; Nevada's Great Basin National Park; Utah's Dinosaur National Monument; and most recently, Telluride, Colorado, where we're visiting friends and just returned from a 3-day wilderness float through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River (sans children!).

Fortunately, Blogger's nifty scheduling tool (available through Draft Blogger) enabled me to post a bunch of stuff before hitting the road. Foraging hasn't been a top priority on this trip; it ranks somewhere behind "not getting a speeding ticket while driving at top speed across the desert." Really, this has been more of a family vacation—as well as a chance for me to (try to) relax on the eve of my book's publication (August 30).

Vacation travel, generally speaking, is a time to throw food habits to the wind. We allow ourselves to put diets on pause, eat stuff we usually avoid, and dine at establishments of dubious repute. I wasn't expecting to forage any wild foods on this trip. Time is short, we have miles to make, and the emphasis is on seeing the sights. At Dinosaur National Monument in Utah we journeyed back millions of years in time along the Fossil Discovery Trail and soaked up the high desert ecosystem on the Sound of Silence Trail. Petroglyphs and pictographs told the story of earlier foragers, the Fremont people, who hunted and gathered in this harsh yet giving landscape.

But at the end of the road, where pioneer woman Josie Bassett Morris homesteaded along Cub Creek, a tributary of the Green River, I was surprised to find an abundance of edible weeds, and incorporated one into my lunch.

Josie Morris was indeed a "tough old girl," as I overheard another tourist say. Born in the 1870s, she grew up in Browns Park on the Colorado side of the Green River country where Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado meet, a place known both for its independent homesteaders and also as a refuge for outlaws. In 1914 she selected her own homestead site along Cub Creek on the Utah side in what is now Dino Monument and built her home. There she raised cattle, pigs, and chickens, grew vegetables, and lived off the land at a time when the rest of the country was discovering the conveniences of industrialized society.

Josie's life is now part of the Old West mythology. She married five times, was widowed by one husband and divorced four. One of her husbands died of suspicious circumstances, and during her lifetime Josie was variously accused of bootlegging, cattle rustling, harboring outlaws, and a number of other colorful crimes. She was known to be a friend of Butch Cassidy—some say more than just a friend—and it's said she helped him outrun law enforcement with fresh horses supplied from her own ranch.

It probably shouldn't have been a surprise to find a number of edible weeds growing on her former property, including lush patches of watercress crowding the irrigation ditches, lambsquarters, wild mint, and other sources of free nutrition that can be harvested with little effort.

The cabin site was like an oasis. Songs of orioles, yellow warblers, and lazuli buntings filled the air. We picnicked in the shade, and as I lunched on a ham-and-cheese sandwich buttressed with a handful of watercress pinched from a nearby patch, the thought occurred to me that I was enjoying a fortifying mouthful of greens from the same patch that Butch Cassidy might have delighted in decades earlier during one of his interludes of seeking safety and nourishment while on the run. And looking back further, my lunch was one in a string of meals stretching back thousands of years in this very place.

Modern day foraging, like any other knowledge handed down through millennia, is a chance to chime in on a conversation that people have been having since we came down out of the trees. If nothing else, I find pleasure in keeping alive this particular dialogue.

Happy Independence Day!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Fettucini with Porcini, Pancetta & Tomato Cream Sauce

You know I love a good gut-buster. Bring on the heavy cream and red wine. We like to import a little French paradox onto American soil, freedom fries be damned. And this recipe, my friends, turned out so hella phenomenal I just hope you give it a try.

9 oz fresh fettucini
1 lb porcini, roughly cut
3 oz thin-sliced pancetta, cut into thirds
2 plum tomatoes, cored and diced
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large shallot, diced
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp vermouth, plus a splash
4-6 oz heavy cream
4 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish
parmesan cheese for shaving over top
salt and pepper

1. Prepare mushrooms ahead of time in a bowl with vermouth and 1 tbsp olive oil. Set aside for 30 minutes.

2. Heat remaining olive oil in a large skillet until almost smoking. Add pancetta, careful to spread around in pan, and lightly brown over medium-high heat.

3. Add shallot, garlic, porcini, and tomatoes and cook over medium heat for several minutes.

4. Add pasta to boiling water. Meanwhile pour a small splash of vermouth into sauce (optional) and cook for a minute, then lower heat to medium-low and stir in heavy cream. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Plate fettucini, ladle over sauce, and garnish with thin shavings of parmesan and a few pinches of parsley. Hook up red wine IV drip. Serves 2 gluttons. Keep pillows nearby.