Sunday, February 28, 2010

Hunters Ed

I've been schlepping up to Bothell on the north shore of Lake Washington all week to attend my first Hunters Education class. The day of the first session I called ahead to make sure the minimum 10 students had signed up and the class was a go. Toni, one of the instructors, gave a little chuckle and said yes, we were a go. Well, fifty other students of different ages, ethnicities, and gender joined me that first evening and the three evenings after that.

As has been widely reported in recent months (see this article from the New York Times) more than a few of the students were like me: would-be hunters of a certain age from the city. In fact, several of us were not legally obligated to take the class at all (the cut-off is January 1, 1972), but coming from urban environments and without family traditions of hunting, we felt it essential to absorb as much hands-on information as possible before marching off into the woods with our weapons.

A few takeaways:

There's a difference between and an accident and an incident; most deaths and injuries while hunting fall into the latter category. In other words, they're preventable.

Carelessness and ignorance account for the vast majority of hunting incidents.

The Golden Trifecta of Hunter Safety:

  • Always point your muzzle in a safe direction.
  • Keep your gun unloaded until ready to use.
  • Keep your finger off the trigger until you're ready to shoot.

The first night we went over basic safety with a variety of talks and films. The second night we discussed ethics, with some wildlife identification thrown in. Night three was more hands-on. We practiced getting a rifle out of a pickup, carrying it up and down a hill, and placing it back in the truck. (Hint: When picking up a gun, after making sure the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction, always check the action to make sure it's open and not loaded.) Next, partnered up, we practiced getting in and out of a boat and crossing a fence. Good stuff. The third class concluded with a talk on first aid and outdoor survival. The fourth night we shot air rifles in the basement and took the test. I passed.

I still have a sense of vertigo about this hunting thing, like I've pitched off a ledge and am falling headlong into the unknown, but I figure a few trips to the shooting range will help. I still don't feel comfortable around guns. Maybe that's good. Maybe one should never feel too comfortable. And as for the actual hunting—or should I say killing—well, we'll just have to see, won't we?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Nettle Pesto Pops

I found a frozen packet of nettles from last year's harvest in the freezer the other day. With all the fresh nettles we've been eating lately this seemed like an opportune time to see how a year-old hunk of frozen nettles tasted in comparison. I'm happy to report my dinner companions up the street didn't blink. Not for a second did they wonder whether my potluck contribution of Cream of Stinging Nettle Soup wasn't made from nettles picked that day (and I didn't tell—shhhh). The day-glo green color and signature flavor would have fooled me too.

Score another point for free, nutritious food.

Speaking of frozen nettles, I wouldn't have been able to make a soup with fresh nettles anyway because all of my harvest has gone into pesto production. There's a reason for this. She's four going on fourteen, cute as a button when she's not terrorizing her parents or building elaborate homes for ponies and princesses out of the furniture, and she loves her daddy's nettle pesto.

I've already posted a recipe for Stinging Nettle Pesto, but here's more info/photos about putting up your pesto. Use a Ziploc with a corner cut off to fill each cavity of the tray, then put in the freezer for several hours. Once frozen the pesto cubes can be easily removed from the tray and stored in freezer bags, ready for use throughout the year.

Whenever Ruby wants her pesto fix, I simply grab a pesto pop from the freezer, heat it up in the microwave, and toss with a bowl of cooked pasta. A single cube is enough to coat a few servings of pasta.

If you want to make a large batch of nettle pesto just remember to harvest enough nettles. A grocery bag packed with freshly harvested stinging nettles yields about two ice trays of pesto plus a small tub.

Few meals are healthier or easier to make.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Winter Is the New Spring: Nettle Gnocchi

Inhofe and his ilk can bury their heads in the D.C. snow and deny climate change, but here in the Pacific Northwest we just experienced the warmest January on record. Not the warmest in 10 years, not the warmest in a generation—the warmest since scientists first started keeping track, going back to 1891 in the case of Seattle. This is just one of many indicators—from melting glaciers in the Cascades to the changing migration patterns of birds, butterflies, and fish—that a degree or two of rising mercury is remaking the planet in dramatic ways.

The results of our balmy mid-winter beach break have been painfully clear, so to speak. Stinging nettles in the lowlands are already at harvestable size, with some well over a foot tall. I harvested my first batch on February 8. That's two weeks earlier than my previous earliest date. In fact, this year I could have found tender young nettles of six inches or so at the end of January.

To re-phrase an old saw, if the world gives you stinging nettles, make Nettle Gnocchi.

Whenever I make a potato-based gnocchi (as opposed to semolina-based) I'm always skeptical until the little pillows are safely plated and intact. So much can seemingly go wrong (though it usually works out). I improvised on the same recipe as the one for Oxtail & Porcini Gnocchi, which is based on a recipe from 101 Cookbooks. But after making gnocchi a handful of times in the past year I can say that recipes for potato dumplings are more like guidelines. The important thing is to get a feel for the dough. I don't think I've ever used the same amount of flour twice, and this is especially true when adding a wet ingredient such as boiled nettles to the mix.

So think of the amounts below as estimates. The best thing to do is start with less than the full cup of flour and then keep adding. You may end up using well over a cup as I did.

2 large Yukon Gold potatoes, boiled and peeled
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup nettles, boiled and chopped
1 cup or more flour
salt to taste

1. Boil nettles for a minute or two to neutralize sting. Remove to cold water. Next wring out excess water. Chop nettles, measure out a cup and then whir in a food processor.

2. Cut potatoes in half and boil in salted nettle water until tender, thirty minutes or more. Remove from water one at a time and peel. Break down potatoes with a fork and allow to cool. Make sure to attack lumps but don't over-mash.

3. Mix nettles into potatoes by hand, a little at a time.

4. Sprinkle a handful of flour over your work space. Pull potato-nettle mixture into a mound on floured surface and make a volcano-like crater. Pour beaten egg into crater and sprinkle 3/4 of the flour over top. Start working the dough with metal spatulas or your hands, adding more flour and folding the dough into itself as you go. I find this step gets messy unless I make sure to use plenty of flour.

5. Split the dough into 5 or 6 balls. The dough is ready when you can easily roll out each ball into a long snake. Again, a work surface dusted generously with flour makes this easier. Now cut into pillows.

6. Add gnocchi to salted boiling water. (You can re-use your nettle-potato water.) When they float to the surface they're done. Remove with a slotted spoon.

I ate my Nettle Gnocchi with two different sauces. A simple red sauce with grated parm works quite nicely, the acidity of the tomatoes marrying well with the high green note of the nettles.

But even better, in my opinion, is—surprise!—a sweet, herbed cream sauce. I know, my love for the cream sauce seems to know no bounds. Just trust me. For this more decadent preparation, try briefly sauteing fresh chopped herbs from the garden (I used sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, parsley, and chives) in butter, splashing with a little cognac that bubbles off (but not before leaving a pleasant sweetness), and finishing with heavy cream. Pour over the gnocchi and sprinkle with parmesan. As you can see from my picture below I was in a bit of a hurry to eat this meal. I used half-and-half, which separated somewhat from the butter. Still, it was an amazing lunch.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Next Steps

I called the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife the other day. Squirrels, I said to the guy, I want me some squirrels.

Seattle is overrun by thuggish non-native Eastern gray squirrels that strut about as if they own the place—and they're making life tough on the threatened Western gray squirrel. At a party before Christmas I talked to a friend who knew a bit about blowguns of all things. The gears started turning. My boy is crazy for poison dart frogs, which we check out at the zoo whenever we're there. I would get some poison dart frogs (from where I hadn't yet figured out) and...and make an extract from said amphibians! Then tag a few of our oh-so-cocky grays. But after a while that idea somehow lost steam and I was onto the notion of a slingshot. Yeah, knock 'em right off our fence as they prance about.

So I called WDFW. The game warden was understanding. He'd like to see a few of those fat Eastern grays in a nice gumbo too. But city laws trump anything WDFW has to say, and virtually every city of any size in Puget Sound—which is where the Eastern grays gangbang—has ordinances that prohibit projectiles of any sort. "You can't even throw a rock at them according to the law," he said to me sadly.

What's a squirrel gumbo fancier to do?

After that I started looking at Hav-a-Hart traps. But squirrels are notoriously hard to kill and the thought of trying to drown one—the humane option as sanctioned by WDFW—seemed like too much of an ordeal. The upshot is I plan to hunt squirrels the old-fashioned way—with guns—when I visit my brother-in-law in Arkansas.

In the meantime I've hooked up with the bass player of The Tallboys, a local old-timey music outfit, who's a couple years ahead of me on the hunting learning curve. For small game John uses a Savage Model 24, a combo .22 rifle and 20-gauge shotgun that collapses into a packable size. The other day we got an early start (see the sunrise over Lake Washington above) to scout some possible rabbitat near North Bend. The rabbits weren't a-hoppin', though we did flush a couple ruffed grouse and noted those locations for fall when the bird season opens. In a few weeks I take a Hunter Education class, four evenings of instruction capped by a visit to a shooting range.

The odyssey has begun.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Great FOTL Huckle Buckle CONTEST!

Patience is not one of my virtues. This I know. I also know that I will probably never muster the patience required to be a good baker. Unlike most cooking, baking is all about exact measurements. Good bakers improve on a given recipe based on trial and error and careful observation. They learn precisely how to adapt to local conditions of humidity, temperature, elevation, etc. Keeping a log of each attempt—what went right, what wrong—is the sort of smart attention to detail that any good baker employs. I keep no such log.

And so, unless I change my ways, my occasional stabs at baking will almost always be less than earth-shattering. The numinous alchemy between sugar, butter, and flour will remain obscure to me. This is where you come in, gentle reader.

See the recipe for Huckle Buckle below? It hails from an ancient spiral-bound edition of the Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book. The "new" cracks me up. Martha must have liberated this copy from her grandmother's collection. The recipe is a standard coffee cake with blueberry topping (huckleberry in this household). It's okay, not great. The baking time seems to vary. Rarely do I get the topping synched up with the fluffy cake part, and sometimes the fluffy cake part ain't so fluffy. But it could be really good, I'm sure of that, with some tweaks and additions. After all, what's not to like? Huckleberries and coffee cake should be a killer combo.

Your mission, should you accept it, is to improve upon this recipe—or come up with another one. If the latter, it should be recognizable as a sort of coffee cake (because I like coffee cake) and use either huckleberries or blueberries. I'll award two prizes, which will be a jar of pickled sea beans or fiddleheads for the lucky winners: one prize randomly selected from all the entrants and one prize for my choice of best recipe. Be warned that overly complicated recipes will have a strike against them from the get-go ('cause I'm no champion baker, remember). It might take me a while to try all the recipes, so be patient (wait, you're bakers—you're already patient!).

One last thing: Please use frozen or canned huckleberries or blueberries. We all love fresh, but most of the year we use berries we've put up.

You can email me your recipe (finspotcook AT gmail dot com) or post in the comments field. Include contact info. Contest ends on February 28, 2010. I'll compile the recipes for a future post.

My So-So Huckle Buckle


1/2 cup shortening
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup milk


2 cups huckleberries or blueberries *
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 cup butter

In large bowl cream shortening and 3/4 cup sugar. Add egg and beat until light. In separate bowl mix together flour, baking powder, and salt; add to creamed mixture along with milk. Spread in greased 11 X 7-inch pan. Top with berries. Mix 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup flour, and cinnamon; cut in butter until crumbly. Sprinkle over berries. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until done. Let cool for several minutes, then slice. Serve warm.

* We use two different techniques when using frozen berries. If the berries are frozen in a clump, we thaw and drain them; if individually frozen we add them to the batter without thawing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Menu for Hope Results

Congratulations to Marie Schall who has won an afternoon of foraging with yours truly—and BIG thank yous to everyone who participated in the sixth Menu for Hope raffle. Food bloggers raised nearly $80,000 for the UN World Food Program. Click here to see a full list of raffle winners.