Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Herding of the Pinks

Every other year at the end of August a bunch of friends get together to fish, laugh, and fish some more. We know each other through that most post-post modern of mediums, the Internet chat group, in this case a fly-fishing forum. Too bad Marshall McLuhan isn't around to witness and comment on the forging of such connections. If I could pull an Alvy Singer I would.

Our rallying site adds to the post modern twist: the industrial port of Seattle where the Duwamish River empties into Elliott Bay. Yet this isn't meant to be an ironic sort of fish slumming. As my friend Nope puts it, this is the most democratic of fisheries. Recent immigrants line the riprap, factory workers come out to throw a line during lunch break, and well-heeled anglers in yachts patrol the shipping channels. It's not a scenic place to wet a fly in the traditional sense—it's no Montana as portrayed in A River Runs Through It—but it has its own beauty. This is the grittiest of urban foraging, complete with container ships, trash compactors, big-bellied planes taking off and landing at nearby Boeing Field, cranes swiveling overhead, barges blowing their bullhorns, and a silhouette of stilettoed skyscrapers in the distance. Oh, and the place is a Superfund site.

With pontoons, kickboats, even sketchy rubber rafts, we take to the water armed with flyrods and round up our quarry, the pink salmon. Also known as humpies for the pronounced hunchbacks developed by males in the spawning phase, pink salmon have a two-year life cycle and return to local rivers every other year. Not nearly as esteemed as their bretheren the kings, silvers, and sockeyes, their flesh is less deep red and oil-saturated, so commerically they're mostly used by the canneries. But pinks are good biters, especially on a fly, and their meat smokes up very nicely.

Besides, the pink is a scrappy fish that seems to have taken to the scraps left behind in our devastated world. They're our fish, and we love them. Most pinks around Puget Sound average three to five pounds; those heading up the Duwamish to spawning grounds on the Green River run a little larger. We caught several in the six to seven pound range, including especially large dime-bright females.

Fishing the beaches during a large run is productive, but once the fish converge at the tidal mouths of their natal streams the action can get silly. This is the time to lean on the oars. Like fly-fishing for trout, you put the fly in the ring of the rise and WHAM! Fish on. At the peak you can have fish after fish slamming your fly—a notion that runs counter to most of what you hear about fly-fishing for salmon—and each one puts a solid bend in a 6-, 7-, or even 8-weight rod, towing a kickboat in circles before it succumbs to the net. We herders find a likely corner away from the barges and tugs to circle our wagons. Pinks run this gauntlet at their own peril, especially if my friend Bubba is tossing a line. Bubba has dialed in the Seattle pink fishery in the last decade like no one else and watching him fish is a lesson in humility. (A crack photographer as well, he contributed a few of the shots that accompany this post and video.)

BTW, if someone tells you the pink isn't worth keeping for the table, you smile and nod while you stack that limit in your cooler. I catch enough pinks every other year to take care of all my smoked salmon needs, and the brightest ones hit the barbecue the same day.

Smoked Salmon

It's easy to get worked up about all the possibilities for smoked salmon. You can use 101 different spices, juices, aromatics, etc. But if you catch fish in quantity, as we do during the pink run, you also gain a new understanding of what hunter-gatherer cultures were up against. For the two weeks I actively fished—about half the run—I lost more than a lot of sleep. Fish, work, fish some more, clean and fillet, put the kids to bed, brine the fish, go to bed, wake up and rinse off the brined fish, then fish the morning tide, work, fish until dark, clean and fillet, put the kids to bed, stay up late smoking the first batch and brining the next, haul stinky garbage to curb, try to clean kitchen before wife goes ballistic, sleep a few hours, get up and fish...and so on.

Notice how during that entire two-day cycle I only managed to smoke one batch. With limits of 4 to 6 fish daily (depending on area), we were drowning in salmon. Not that I'm objecting. So the point? Stick to basics. A simple brine of brown sugar, salt, and garlic is really all you need, with a dry brine being easier and less messy than a wet brine.

4 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup pickling salt
1 head garlic, cloves peeled & chopped
black pepper to taste

Mix the dry brining ingredients. Generously cover each piece of salmon (I cut pink salmon fillets into thirds), then place skin-up in a non-reactive dish. Refrigerate for 6-8 hours. The brine will have become a soupy mess after water has been leached out of the fish. Gently rinse off each piece and allow to air-dry on paper towels for a couple hours until a pellicle forms—the tacky (not wet) outer layer of flesh that is so loaded with flavor.

For the actual smoking I use a Weber "Bullet," but it's possible to employ a regular gas grill in a pinch. A water pan is essential for keeping the fish from drying out. For wood chips I like to use fruit trees: apple, or cherry if I can get it. Alder is good too. If not green, the chips need to be immersed in a bucket of water for 30 minutes, then tossed on the coals in handfuls. Everyone has their own theories about temperature and smoking duration. Hot smoking will always be quicker than cold smoking. Because pink salmon fillets aren't thick, I usually figure on smoking for about an hour, even with a small amount of coals, maybe an hour and a half at most.

The last step is vacuum-sealing. I've kept properly packaged smoked salmon in the deep freeze for two years without any appreciable loss of flavor or tenderness.

Blackberry Must & Citrus Cured Salmon

Another option is cured salmon. While making blackberry wine with my friend Becky [future post], her chef pal Ashlyn turned me on to a use for the leftover must, the mashed up fruit that settles on the bottom of the barrel during the initial fermentation phase. Once you rack the wine for the first time, the must is discarded. But Ashlyn suggested I use it to cure fresh salmon. So I did.

2 lb salmon fillet(s)
3/4 cup pickling salt
1 cup brown sugar
1 each zest of a lemon, lime & orange
1 teaspoon peppercorns
1 sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
1 cup blackberry must*

* If you happen to have some blackberry must laying around, by all means use it. If not, the rest of the ingredients make an excellent cure on their own.

Mix all ingredients minus the must in a food processor. Next add the must a little at a time, enough to color the cure but not so much as to make it soggy. Spread a thick layer of cure on bottom of non-reactive dish, up to 1/4 inch. Lay salmon, skin side up, on top of cure, then pack remaining cure on top of the salmon. Cover salmon with plastic wrap and weight down with a few pounds (e.g., cans from the cupboard). Flip salmon in 12 hours. Salmon is finished after 24 hours. Rinse and dry.

The cured salmon will be darker, with an attractive, slightly purple hue from the must, plus there will be a smattering of blackberry seeds that give it extra texture. Slice thinly off the top and eat within a week. I had mine on pumpernickel with a dollop of creme fraiche and chives.

And remember to kiss that first pink salmon of the season. They're the only species of salmon left in the Lower 48 that gives us a hint of what salmon fishing was once like in the not-so-distant past.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Vitamin C-Bomb

Right about this time of year is when the gate-crashing usually starts. My 4-year-old and 8-year-old bring the uninvited guests home from school. First sniffles, then coughs, and finally all-night hacking. The cycle repeats itself through the winter on a seemingly endless loop of crusty noses, balled-up tissue paper, and general grumpiness.

Whoever discovers a cure for the common cold will be richer than Midas, if not richer than the guy who can make hangovers go away, but in the meantime we've got vitamin C. It just so happens that rosehips—the red, globular fruit of the rose—have vitamin C in spades. I picked some the other day with food reporter Leslie Kelly, who writes for the Amazon food blog Aldente among other publications. This was urban foraging at its best, with good views of float planes landing on Lake Union and the Space Needle looming overhead. Leslie even filmed a bit of the action.

They say hips are at their best after first frost but I don't have time to wait until Halloween before visitors scarier than trick-or-treaters start knocking at the door. With about a quart's worth I made syrup. It's pretty simple. First grind the hips in a food processor, then cover with water and simmer for 30 or so minutes before running the mush through a food mill and then straining out the pulp. You can save the pulp for other purposes. The strained juice goes back in the pot with sugar—or better yet, honey—to taste, and any other odds and ends such as cloves, cinnamon, or ginger—and voila: a Vitamin C-Bomb that can be mixed into juice or water for the kids—or used for more gustatory purposes in desserts, sauces, jams, or even cocktails.

So next time you're out and about and you spy some of those bright red vitamin C-bombs, do the hip shake, babe.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Putting Up Porcini

If you want to pick mountain porcini, you best keep your ear to the wall. No one casually gives up their patches of porcini. It's hard enough to predict where and when the buggers will fruit as it is.

Here in the Cascades we get two, possibly three distinct fruitings of porcini: the spring variety, which is now officially known as Boletus rex-veris; and the summer/fall varieties, which might be distinct from each other but get lumped in together as a single species with the famous porcini of Italy, Boletus edulis. All varieties are deserving of their nickname "king bolete." With their firm flesh and nutty flavor, they might be my favorite wild mushrooms of all.

A couple weeks ago while picking huckleberries I got a tip from some hikers that a lot of mushrooms were fruiting to the south. The next day I hopped in the car and made an educated guess about where to go. Mountain porcini like high elevations, and they're picky about tree composition. True firs and spruce are the ticket. After a three-mile hike I started to see them—first some blown-out flags in the sunny areas and then fetching number one buttons emerging out of the duff in more shaded spots.

When picking porcini, always make sure to field dress them right away. I trim the end to check for worm holes, then cut the mushroom in half. Often a pristine looking bolete will show signs of bugs once you slice it open, but the infestations will just as often be local to a small area of the cap or stem that can be trimmed away. Whatever you do, don't simply put a porcino in your basket to trim later at home. I've learned the hard way that a basketful of beautiful buttons can be a worm-ridden mess by the time you get home if you don't deal with the bugs immediately.

By the end of the day I had nearly 10 pounds of mostly perfect porcini buttons (having thrown away twice that amount as too far gone). What a dilemma! I had more porcini than I could use. Some I cooked, some I gave away, and the rest got pickled.

Pia's Pickled Porcini

My friend Cora, who stars in the morel hunting chapter of Fat of the Land the book, passed this recipe along to me from his father's cousin, who lives in Cortemiglia, Italy. She gathers 20 to 50 pounds of porcini annually, so putting up some is a must.

1 pound fresh porcini buttons, halved or quartered
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup water
olive oil
2 lemon peels per jar
2 dried red chili peppers per jar
1/2 tsp peppercorns per jar
(optional) other fresh herbs and spices such as thyme or oregano

1. Clean and cut up porcini buttons, then spread on a baking sheet. Cover generously with salt and set aside for at least an hour, until the mushrooms have shed much of their water. Drain and lightly rinse under tap in a colander.

2. Bring vinegar and water to boil. There should be enough liquid to cover mushrooms. Increase amounts for larger batches, keeping the ratio of vinegar to water at 1:1. Simmer porcini for 2 – 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels and set aside to dry for a few hours.

3. Pack sterilized jars with porcini, lemon peels, chili peppers, and peppercorns, then fill with olive oil (try both extra virgin and light olive oils to determine taste preference). Keep refrigerated.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Mind Your Elders: Elderberry Syrup

Okay, we're back to our regular programming.

On the way out of my favorite thimbleberry patch a few weeks ago, armed with a gallon of the hard-won berries—which took the better part of a day to pick and will become Recessionary Christmas presents in the form of jam —I spied a few nice specimens of the Sambucus genus, the Elderberry tree. My feet ached and I needed water, but I just had to have some. Picking the berries of this tree was an exercise in contrasts, with a gallon bag taking about five minutes to fill.

Elderberries are a common sight along the river canyons on the dry side of the Cascades and in many other places across the globe. I'm not sure exactly what species of elderberry these were, but they exhibited the glaucous bloom on the berry—that powdery white dusting visible in the photo at right—that is common in the blue elderberry (Sambucus caerulea), which is apparently the most common species in eastern Washington and Oregon.

While easy to pick, the real work begins at home with the processing. Because the leaves, stems, bark, and roots of elderberries are toxic, you must be sure to remove any non-berry debris before cooking. The stems in particular require attention. As you pull off the berries, try to remove as many of the tag-along stems as possible.

Elderberry Syrup

Family recipes for elderberry syrup abound. I found one that included fresh ginger and another that relied on a healthy dose of vodka. Two of the main considerations are sweetness and viscosity. For thicker syrup, use less water and cook down. Add sugar to taste.

For my syrup I hewed to the simple and direct. I added enough water to the pot of berries so that they were swimming but not entirely covered (in retrospect, I could have used a little less water). After bringing the berry-water mixture to a boil I let it simmer for 30 minutes, periodically working it with a potato masher. This got dumped into a food mill and cranked, removing the skins, and then strained once more to oust the seeds. The resulting 4 cups of juice went back into the pot with 2 1/2 cups of sugar, half a packet of pectin, and the juice of 1 small lemon. I brought it to a boil, killed the heat, and stirred until the foam was gone, then ladled into jars to be processed in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Your mileage may vary. My advice is to to tinker until you're happy. Pectin isn't necessary; I used it because I was in a hurry. The resulting syrup was aces over yogurt. Ice cream will be next, then maybe a cocktail of some sort...