Saturday, May 29, 2010

Just Dig It

One of the pleasures of this job is the chance to meet all kinds of folks who are working in the slow food movement. John Adams is one of them. He has a family-owned shellfish business in South Puget Sound and also manages one of Taylor Shellfish's larger operations on the Dosewallips tide flats of Hood Canal.

The Dose as it's known (pronounced Doe-see) is one of those noteworthy Pacific Northwest estuaries that is ideally suited to supporting a wide array of wildlife and includes some of the most productive tidelands in the state. Snowmelt pours off the eastern slope of the Olympic Mountains to form the Dosewallips River, which in turn feeds into Hood Canal. The fresh inflow mixes with the salt across a broad expanse of glacial till to make an exceptional oyster-rearing habitat. Bald eagles patrol the shores and large numbers of harbor seals pop up to check you out in the waters off the appropriately named Seal Rock. Dungeness crabs, littleneck clams, and spot shrimp are just a few of the other toothsome varieties of shellfish that populate the estuary.

One handsome looking fella that draws foragers from far and wide is the geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck). This largest of the world's burrowing clams inhabits the lower tidal zone in good numbers—though skill and determination are still required to bring it to hand.

I spent a morning the other day with Adams and food writer Laurel Miller tracking down the wily 'duck. It's fair to say Laurel and I were both in awe of our guide's knowledge. For one thing, he can spot a geoduck show the way the rest of us see a ten dollar bill on the sidewalk. Unlike razor clam digging, when you might dig anything remotely resembling a show, deciding to dig for a geoduck is a commitment, and often you get only one shot at a clam before the tide turns. This makes the locating and verification of a show all the more crucial. John advised that it's best to see the siphon (pictured at left) or at least feel it. Lots of holes in the sand might look like geoduck shows but if the clam can't be verified, it isn't worth digging for. Horse clams (aka gapers) have similar if less oblong shows; their siphon tips, however, are usually marked by scales or barnacles, which are noticeable to the touch.

Sometimes the conditions don't cooperate and the clams, for whatever reason, withdraw their siphons. In such instances there's not much a clammer can do to make a positive ID. More likely, though, is that the would-be geoduck digger doesn't find a show because he isn't looking in the right place. Geoducks are found at the lowest end of the tidal zone. Most of the clamming literature specifies a low tide of -2 feet or more. The or more is worth noting; digging on a -3 foot tide is a much different story from digging on -2 foot tide, and each increment below -2 gives the digger a better chance, so that a -2.6 tide is quite a bit better than -2.4, for example. Also, it's important to scout the beach because geoducks are often found in concentrations in some areas and altogether absent in others. Hardcore clammers will flag geoduck shows for later.

John said that geoduck populations are generally in good shape but recreational digging tends to eliminate clams from the easiest reaches of a beach. Like mushroom hunting, a 'duck hunter is often paid off in spades for getting away from the crowds and investigating the farthest-flung corners of a tidal flat.

John also taught me a new technique for digging ducks. Rather than centering our gun—the tube used as a bulkhead to dig a hole without the sand and mud continually collapsing into the hole—directly over the clam's show, we positioned it to the side and dug adjacent to the geoduck's lair. Like a bank robber that tunnels underneath and into a vault from a safe location, this strategy allowed us to dig confidently without the fear of accidentally decapitating our quarry. Once we were deep enough, we dug laterally and found the clam's neck, then worked our way down to the shell and carefully extracted it from the burrow three feet beneath the substrate.

Or I should say Laurel extracted it. The dig was her idea and so while each of us put in some elbow grease to excavate the hole, Laurel had the honor of the final capture. I mostly snapped photos and stayed relatively dry, unlike my last geoduck dig.

Geoduck Sashimi

Geoduck Sashimi should be a revelation for most clam lovers. The rich clam flavor is pure and clean, without any distractions, and balanced by a slight sweetness. The texture is al dente in the best way. A light soy-based sauce used sparingly can accentuate the taste.

1. Clean the clam. Immerse geoduck in pot of boiling water for 8 seconds. Remove from pot, run under cold tap, and then peel off leathery siphon sheath. Cut adductor muscles (where clam attaches on inside of shell) on either side and remove body from shell. Slice off siphon at base of body and nip off the tough, dark tip of siphon, about a 1/2-inch. Discard the gut ball and gills and reserve rest of body for saute or stir-fry. The siphon is best for sashimi or ceviche.

2. Slice siphon lengthwise not quite in half and spread open, butterfly style. Clean under tap, making sure to wash off any sand or grit. The siphon is not ready to be thinly sliced for sashimi.

3. Make a sauce either for dipping or to pour over sashimi. For instance, 1 tbsp soy sauce with 1 tbsp rice vinegar and 1 tsp minced ginger. Garnish with wasabi and pickled ginger.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Spring Risotto with Morels, Fiddleheads & Asparagus

Do I really need to say much about this dish or its use of the best of what the season has to offer? Nah.

1 dozen asparagus stalks
20 fiddleheads
15-20 medium-sized morels, halved
1 cup risotto rice
1 small onion, diced
1 large garlic clove, diced
1/2 cup white wine
4 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup parm, grated
2 tbsp butter, divided
olive oil

1. Cut 2-inch tops of asparagus; cut rest of stalk into 1-inch pieces. Blanche fiddleheads and asparagus (minus tops) for 3 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon. Blanche asparagus tops 1 minute right before serving.

2. Saute onion and garlic until soft in a tablespoon each of butter and olive oil, a couple minutes. Add morels and cook for 2-3 minutes before adding fiddleheads and asparagus (minus tops). Cook together another 2-3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Add more olive oil if necessary, then add rice, stirring to coat. Cook for 2 minutes over medium heat.

4. Add a ladle of chicken broth at a time until rice is al dente.

5. Off heat stir in a tablespoon of butter and parmesan cheese. Serve immediately, garnishing with asparagus tops.

Serves 2.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Nature's Garden

Following in the footsteps of Euell Gibbons, Sam Thayer has inspired a generation to get outside and find wild food delicacies waiting beyond the back door. His first book, The Forager's Harvest, was a hands-on guide to the bounty around us, with an emphasis on those species found near his midwestern home. This April Thayer published his second volume, Nature's Garden, a guide that is at once more wide-ranging and yet also focused in a way that the average how-to book is not.

In an introductory section called simply "The Purpose of This Book" Thayer lays out his vision: This is not a guide for the armchair enthusiast, he writes, it is "a guide to actually foraging." (Italics his.) Rather than bombard the novice with countless species and terse descriptions, he compiles a sort of Forager's Hall of Fame, with something to please everyone, from beginners to experts and home cooks to chefs. Thus, while there are only 41 plants discussed in Nature's Garden, these are all winners, and each one receives detailed treatment, including multiple color photos of wild plants at various stages in their life cycles; lengthy descriptions of identification, habitat and range, harvest and preparation; and in some cases history, lore, and ecology.

The acorn chapter, for instance, gets no fewer than 50 pages devoted to this important though tricky food source, with acorns broken out by individual species and helpful notes about separating the good from the bad and the many ways of processing. The section also illustrates the author's no-nonsense approach. Of the "sweet acorn" myth—that is, the El Dorado-like idea of an acorn that doesn't require leaching to remove bitter tannins—Thayer writes: "Dream of these tannin-free acorns if you wish, hope if you like, but don't waste your time looking for them. No acorn myth has bred more disillusionment."

For those wondering whether such a focused and personal treatment will work for their own region, Thayer includes a relevance chart by U.S. state and Canadian province. My own state of Washington is on the low end of the spectrum, with 76 percent applicability; at the other end, with 95 percent or higher, are Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and the Canadian province of Ontario. Clearly his expertise is concentrated in the Midwest and East Coast, but those of us from the western states won't be disappointed. Even the desert state of Nevada is represented by half the entries.

Some well-known wild foods are here: hazelnut, prickly pear, huckleberry, wild strawberry, dandelion, and others. Of greater interest are those less publicized foods that beginning foragers want to know more about: amaranth, garlic mustard, Jerusalem-artichoke, sow-thistle, salsify, and many more.

Nature buffs, would-be foragers, and even experienced wild foods aficionados should all have a copy of Nature's Garden in their libraries—or better yet—at the ready. Stock market investors might see it as a hedge too.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Salmon with Wild Sorrel Sauce

Sorrel sauce is a classic French cream sauce that uses the tart, lemony potherb commonly known as sorrel (Rumex acetosa) as the defining ingredient. Oxalic acid, a naturally occurring compound in the plant, gives it this flavor. In small quantities sorrel makes a bright, lip-puckering addition to salads, soups, or sauces—but too much oxalic acid can be mildly toxic and hard on the digestive tract.

Turns out you don't have to grow sorrel to get this singular flavor. Another unrelated species of plant grows wild in the woods and also contains oxalic acid. Funnily enough it's called oxalis—or sometimes wood-sorrel.

Maybe you've seen wood-sorrel before. It looks like the sort of shamrock that would bowl over a leprechaun. Large patches of it will sometimes carpet the forest floor. Here in the Pacific Northwest the species I usually see is Oxalis oregona. Something about the lobed leaves and dense matting is comforting to me. When I see a big patch of oxalis I just want to dive in and float on my back.

While most fish pair well with a sorrel sauce, salmon is perhaps the most celebrated. I picked up a fillet of wild spring chinook at a rather hefty price so I could properly enjoy this sauce that cost pennies to make.

2 half-pound wild salmon fillets, skinless
2 tbsp cold unsalted butter, divided
1 small shallot, diced
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
1/8 cup heavy cream
small pinch cayenne pepper
1/4 cup packed wood-sorrel leaves, de-stemmed
salt and pepper
olive oil

1. Brush the salmon fillets with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and place on foil on a baking sheet. Put fillets in pre-heated oven on broil, 4 to 6 inches from flame, just before making sauce. Figure about 10 minutes per inch of thickness.

2. Over moderate heat melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a heavy, nonreactive saucepan. Add diced shallot and cook, stirring, until starting to brown, 1 or 2 minutes.

3. Add champagne vinegar and reduce to a tablespoon before adding heavy cream. Bring barely to boil, reduce heat, and stir in second tablespoon of butter. The sauce should be thick. Season with salt and a pinch of cayenne pepper.

4. Quickly shred wood-sorrel leaves and mix into sauce. The leaves will lose their vibrant green color but their distinct lemony flavor will remain. Pour over salmon fillets and serve immediately.

Makes 2 servings.

You can also enjoy wood-sorrel as a garnish. It's especially nice as a contrast to the rich, buttery flavor of a good cut of beef.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sea Scallops with Maple Blossom Pesto, Morels & Asparagus

I missed the lowland blossoming of big-leaf maples, but now that it's morel time in the foothills I get another crack at the floral, slightly sweet blossoms. Maple blossoms can be added to salads, sautéed, or even used to make pesto. I blended equal portions of maple blossom and fresh mint from the garden to make this simple pesto. The rest of the ingredients are standard. Adjust as you see fit. The amounts below make enough pesto for two.

Maple Blossom-Mint Pesto

1/4 cup maple blossoms
1/4 cup fresh mint
1/8 cup olive oil
scant 1/8 cup pine nuts
1 clove garlic
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
fresh ground pepper

For the rest of the meal you'll need the following ingredients:

8 large sea scallops
several large morels, halved
1 dozen stalks of asparagus, trimmed
olive oil

1. Make pesto in food processor.
2. Saute morels and asparagus in butter and olive oil over medium heat, turning carefully with tongs, 5 to 6 minutes.
3. Season scallops with salt, pepper, and paprika. While morels and asparagus are cooking, saute scallops quickly in a separate pan with butter over medium-high heat. Finish with a splash of sherry. Allow sherry to cook off and make sure to get a crisp edge on the scallops.
4. Spread a dollop of pesto on each plate. Arrange scallops, asparagus, and morels over pesto with a garnish of chives.

Serves 2.

After plating the meal, the scallops will slowly release their juices, mixing with the pesto to create a colorful sauce. The touch of sherry goes well with the pesto's hint of floral sweetness, and this in turn is balanced nicely by the earthiness of the asparagus and especially the morels.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Hangtown Fry

The old mining town of Placerville, California, was dubbed Hangtown back in the mid-1800s after a trio of outlaws met their end on the same day and in the same oak tree. Legend has it that not long after that a Forty-niner who finally hit paydirt took his diggings into a local saloon and demanded the most expensive meal in town. The cook picked his three dearest ingredients—fresh eggs carefully packed for the rough overland journey, oysters shipped up from San Francisco, and bacon from the East Coast—and fried them up together.

If our miner had been a hedge fund manager the cook might have even tossed a few glittering flakes into the pan, but as it is this plenty rich West Coast classic has satisfied most hungry prospectors for more than 150 years.

Lately I seem to have a surf 'n' turf fixation involving seafood and mushrooms. You can see my Kung Pao Geoduck with Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms and my X-Country Double Lobster Risotto that used Maine lobster and Washington State lobster mushrooms. This time around I combined oysters harvested the other day with my first morel mushrooms of the year.

We got the oysters last week during an outing with the drunken midgets. After showing a few friends of mine the ropes on the oyster bar—then watching them shoot raw oysters left and right—it was miraculous that I got home with any at all. Shucked oysters will keep for several days in the fridge, and though not fit for slurping raw they're perfect in a Hangtown Fry.

4 eggs, beaten
3 oysters, shucked
3 morels, halved
2 slices slab bacon, cut into thirds
1 scallion, bulb sliced, green tops cut into thirds
1 small jalapeño, sliced
cracker crumbs
hot sauce

1. Set oven to 350 degrees. Grease 9-inch cast-iron skillet, then fry bacon over medium heat with a little oil. Remove to plate.
2. Saute morels, jalapeño, and scallion bulb in bacon fat until lightly browned, 4-5 minutes.
3. Meanwhile dredge each oyster in flour, dip in egg, and roll in cracker crumbs. Add a knob of butter to skillet along with battered oysters. Brown on one side, flip, and add remaining scallion tops. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cook 1 minute before pouring in egg and returning bacon to pan.
4. Cook egg mixture for several minutes before finishing in oven like a frittata.
Note: For less fussy approach, simply fry all the non-egg ingredients together and then scramble. Or, alternately, for a more elegant dish, remove each of the ingredients from the skillet in turn when done sautéing, then add back as eggs begin to set, as shown in photos.

Serves 1 hungry prospector or 2 hedge fund managers.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

And so it begins...

Here in the upper lefthand corner of the country we have to endure weeks of hearing about everyone else's spectacular morel mushroom finds before we get a taste of our own. The flush usually begins in the southeast around Georgia in March, then spreads north and west from there, up into the Carolinas and across the lower Mississippi states of Arkansas and Missouri and into the Midwest. By the end of April the morel fruiting has usually marched up into New England and the Great Lakes region.

But Washingtonians need to be patient. California kicks off the West Coast season and then there's usually a stall before Oregon turns on and then Washington. I plan on mid-May to mid-June for the bulk of my morel picking, by which time most of the rest of the country has eaten their fill.

There are benefits to holding up the caboose. Our season is long. Morels in the Pacific Northwest start in the river valleys and migrate uphill, sometimes lasting through the summer at high elevations. My first morel foray is always to the most exposed locations in low-elevation valleys. I'll find morels out in the open in direct sunlight, far from any shade trees—a habitat that would surprise an East Coast morel hunter. Later in May and through June I'll go higher, looking for areas of disturbance in the mountains: ORV trails, timber harvests, roadcuts, burns, and so on. Unlike the low-elevation morels, these mountain morels seem to associate more with conifers.

These are black morels I'm talking about, likely a complex of species. Yellow morels in some ways are even more of a mystery. The big beautiful yellows (Morchella esculenta) are familiar to Midwestern pothunters, but in the Pacific Northwest they seem to be mainly confined to localized areas west of the Cascades, particularly along the Columbia River and its tributaries. For a while now I've wondered whether the Great Floods during the last ice age were responsible for carrying the spores of interior yellow morels to more westerly locales. In any event, you don't see many yellows up here in Puget Sound and most of our hunting is on the eastern slope.

If you want to go deep into the puzzle palace of morel taxonomy, check out this page from

Another wrinkle in morel morphology is the so-called "landscape morel" or "mulch morel." These are the earliest of all morels. They pop up in flower beds, beauty strips, parking medians—anywhere a commercial mulch or bed of wood-chips has been put down. Mulch morels have been known to fruit in Southern California as early as January or February. I wouldn't advise eating these morels unless you can verify that the mulch hasn't been treated with chemicals, as they so often are.

We're coming into a special time of year in my neighborhood. The thought of spring morel forays gets many a mushroom hunter through the long dark season...and then hot on the heels of the morels we have the spring porcini, a Northwest specialty. The next two months will be spent madly foraging on the dry side of the mountains, a perfect place to be in spring when deep snow drifts still haunt the high country.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Drunken Midgets Loose on the Flats

I know I've been posting a lot of shellfish recipes lately. What can I say? We're in the homestretch. Most shellfish are currently piling on the fat so they can be ready for the spawning season, which generally coincides with warming water temperatures. And fat equals flavor. Let's say that again, class. Fat equals flavor. (I feel like the tie-dyed teacher on South Park.) Once on the spawn, they'll channel that fat toward reproductive success. This physiological change is readily apparent in oysters, which become watery or even milky during the warmest months.

So if you have a yen for some shellfish, now would be a good time to go. I visited one of my regular spots on Sunday with a passel of drunken midgets (as my friend Trouthole likes to refer to children). In typical Northwest fashion, we hit the tide flats in a squall of wind and rain that boded ill for the young charges, but the clouds eventually parted and the sun even deigned to show its face briefly. Ospreys are back and great blue herons stalked around the oyster bars like mimes on street corners.

Once the boys discovered they could dig for shrimp-like crustaceans, roust eels out of old shells, and generally run amok with sharp implements, they warmed to the idea of an afternoon in the mud. We all dug limits of littlenecks and shucked a bunch of oysters (more on the oysters in a future post). I also made sure to gather a dozen or so good-sized mussels.

Back at home Marty and I made one of our favorites, Pasta alle Vongole, and then the following night I steamed the rest of our clams plus the mussels. The thing about steamed shellfish is that it's so easy. There's a reason why steamed clams and mussels are a staple of virtually every dock-side restaurant up and down both coasts. Whether it's Clams with Herbed Wine Sauce, Cambodian Shellfish Amok, Mussels with Cream and Thyme, Spicy Black Bean Clams, Thai Red Curry Clams, or simply Steamers with Butter, steamed shellfish dishes are crowd-pleasers and kitchen-pleasers.

Steamed Shellfish with Wine, Tomato, Sausage & Herbs

3 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed
1 dozen mussels, de- bearded and scrubbed
2-3 tbsp olive oil
1/2 pound Italian sausage, crumbled
1 yellow onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes
1 handful mixed fresh herbs, chopped (e.g. thyme, oregano, parsley)
1-2 pinches red pepper flakes

1. Heat olive oil in deep saute pan or heavy-bottomed pot and brown sausage.
2. Add onions and garlic; cook until soft.
3. De-glaze with white wine, making sure to scrape all the brown bits from the pan. Mix in can of tomatoes with juice, chopped herbs, and pepper flakes. Cook for a few minutes over medium heat.
4. Raise heat to high, dump in shellfish, and cover. Steam until shells open, several minutes.

Serve in bowls with toasted bread. Makes 2 dinner portions.