Friday, July 30, 2010

Wild Berry Tartlets

Lace Thornberg, editor of the Washington Trails Association magazine, joined me for a berry-picking hike on Tiger Mountain the other day. (If you're an outdoors enthusiast in the Northwest, you should check out WTA and consider becoming a member.) We had hoped to explore more far-flung woods—the North Fork Quinault rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula was at the top of my list—but summertime plans intervened and Tiger was the best we could do with just a morning at our disposal.

It doesn't look like a great red huckleberry year, and first reports coming in from the early-ripening mountain huckleberries near Spokane are not encouraging either. Was it the strange spring weather? The lack of July rain? Maybe it's just a cyclical thing. In any event, the red hucks on Tiger were pretty small and not in abundance, but we made the best of it. Lace demonstrated her finely honed hiking skills by whipping out the backpacker's berry receptacle of choice—a Nalgene bottle—and dexterously filled it in no time.

Red huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium) are the first of our many huckleberry species to fruit in the summer, generally preceding their darker cousins by a few weeks. Though found sporadically in the interior as far east as Idaho, they're at their best in the lowland mixed forests of the North Pacific Coast, from Central California up through British Columbia. The west-slope Cascade foothills are good habitat, and the rain forests of the Olympics are loaded with them. The berries are bright fire-engine red and a little more tart than most mountain huckleberries. They look especially good in a fruit salad.

We also found trailing blackberries, the native blackberry of the Pacific Northwest.

After picking and grazing through a series of bushes up and down the trail we headed back toward the parking lot, running into a black bear along the way that was engaged in the same pursuit. The bear eyed us for a moment, then ambled on into the patch, unconcerned.

Lace and I agreed that a tart would be a good choice for the berries. As I've mentioned here before, my baking skills are somewhat suspect so I tend to look for easy recipes. Lo and behold a recipe from Martha Stuart Kids for a simple, unfussy tart dough that can be formed in a muffin tin—right in my wheelhouse! I halved the recipe, since two dozen tarts seemed like overkill, and then set about to make a sweet cheese filling to offset the tartness of the berries.

Tart Dough

1/2 cup flour
3 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut up
2 tbsp confectioner sugar
2 tbsp cold water

Combine flour, sugar, and butter in a food processor and pulse until grainy. Add the water a tablespoon at a time to food processor while running. Pulse until dough forms. I used my hands at the end to finish combining what the Cuisinart missed. Roll into a cylinder, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 30 minutes minimum or up to a day.

Sweet Cheese

1 8-oz package cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces.
6 tbsp sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 tbsp flour
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
lemon zest of half a small lemon

Combine cream cheese and sugar in food processor. Whir until smooth. Add flour, egg, vanilla, and lemon zest and whir again until creamy.

Berry Topping

1 cup wild berries
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp corn starch

Briefly cook berries with sugar and corn starch until juices are syrupy.

For the final tarts I took my dough out of the refrigerator and sliced it into a dozen disks. Each disk I flattened into a 3-inch diameter round on a lightly floured surface before pressing into a muffin tin and forming into a cup. Each little tart—tartlet, if I may be so bold—then got a dollop of sweet cheese filling before being topped with a spoonful of the cooked red huckleberries and a few fresh blackberries. I baked the tartlets for around 20 minutes at 400 degrees.

They were met with approval.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Oregon-grape Preserves

The state flower of Oregon looks like holly and grows throughout much of Cascadia. Anyone who spends time in the woods from Northern California up through British Columbia is familiar with its prickly green leaves, bright yellow blooms, and the tart berries that form in clusters in summer. It's not exactly trail food. Pick a few berries on a hike and you'll experience a lip-puckering flavor that gives new meaning to the term sour grapes. But tame it with sugar and you've got a whole realm of culinary possibilities.

Oregon-grape is not a true grape. Though its dark blue berries hang in grape-like clusters, that's where the comparison ends. Members of the family Berberidaceae, the various species of Oregon-grape are also known for their medicinal qualities. The two species commonly encountered in the forests of the Pacific Northwest are the tall Oregon-grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and low Oregon-grape (Mahonia nervosa). Some botanists consider them part of the Berberis genus, which includes a variety of species commonly called barberries and which are renowned for containing berberine, a compound with cancer-fighting and anti-depressant properties, among other medicinal benefits.

To make Oregon-grape preserves wear gloves and harvest a good quantity of the berries. I picked five pounds or so from a patch behind my daughter's pre-K, right in the center of Seattle. Use containers and utensils that won't stain. Wash the berries and remove any large stems or other leafy debris. Put the berries in a pot and add just enough water so that the berries are barely covered. Boil for 15 minutes until soft, then run through a food-mill in batches. The food-mill should separate the juice and pulp from the skins and seeds.

Now you have a choice: You can further strain the juice from the pulp by using cheese cloth or a fine mesh strainer, or you can leave the pulp in to make a preserve more aptly called a spread. Next measure your juice. I had a scant 5 cups. In general you'll want to add an equivalent amount of sugar, give or take depending on your taste. Try mixing in other fruits or berries, too, or even ginger. Bring your juice to a boil and stir in the optional lemon juice and pectin. I used about half of a 1.75 oz package. Next add the sugar, not all at once but slowly, tasting as you go until reaching your preferred balance between tart and sweet. Bring to a boil again, stirring thoroughly, and cook for a few minutes, then remove from heat and immediately ladle into sterilized jars. Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

My measurements:

5 cups Oregon-grape juice and pulp
4 1/2 cups sugar
juice of 1 lemon (optional)
1 oz pectin

Yield: 3 1/2 pints

While Oregon-grape preserves look and taste a lot like your standard grape jelly, the flavor is more complex and full-bodied, with a sweetness that will please children and a tart edge suitable to a grown-up palate. I think it makes a terrific PB&J yet a dollop is equally at home on a fancy cheese plate.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sweet and Sour Geoduck

A recent New York Times article about East Coast clam culture got me wondering: Why no clam shacks around Puget Sound? Day-trip to a beach near New York City or Boston or anywhere along the Jersey Shore and you're bound to stumble on a weathered, low-slung joint where the beer is cold and the clams are fresh. Near Seattle? Not so much. And please, don't try to sell me on Ivar's. The sad truth is we don't have mom and pop clam shacks here, not in any discernible numbers. Population density, I heard someone say, but the Puget Sound region is now pushing five million people, certainly enough to warrant a few well established hole-in-the-wall shellfish shrines.

Another possibility is the clam fare itself. In addition to steamer clams (Mya arenaria, aka Eastern softshells), the Atlantic boasts another species not native to the Pacific, the quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria), and with it an entire category: clams on the half-shell, which is to say raw clams. Out here we mostly do oysters raw.

Still, even if the clams are different you would think the abundance of seafood in the Northwest would promote more than the occasional touristy fish and chip parlor. We have razor clams, littleneck clams, butter clams, horse clams, a variety of oysters, Dungeness crab, spot shrimp, and so on, not to mention the infamous geoduck. An enterprising soul should be able to open a seaside shanty with local beer and lots of seafood and turn it into a destination. You'd think...

I was thinking about this dearth of clam bar culture when I decided I'd bow to the Pacific Rim inclinations of my town and try to marry those leanings to a more down-home greasy spoon approach. I decided to deep fry the remainder of last week's geoduck clam for Sweet and Sour 'Duck.

Let me just say up front that I never order Sweet and Sour anything at Chinese restaurants. That gooey radioactive pink sauce is too weird even for me. But sweet and sour, when done the right way, is a time-honored amalgam of flavors in the Far East and I decided it would make a good match for deep-fried geoduck. I gave a nod to the Americanized version by adding onions and bell pepper. My one big mistake: I added the clams, already fried and crispy, back into the wok at the end to get them thoroughly coated with sauce, which turned them instantly soggy. Bad call! Best to pour on the sauce when you're ready to serve.

1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
peanut oil
1/2 pound geoduck, sliced into thin strips

For Batter:
2 eggs
1/2 cup or more corn starch

For sauce:
3 tbsp white sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp black Chinese vinegar
1 tsp soy sauce
4 tsp corn starch
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1 tbsp garlic, minced
1 tbsp ginger, minced
3/4 cup chicken stock
1 tsp sesame oil

1. Prepare sauce ingredients. In a small bowl mix together sugar, salt, black vinegar, soy sauce, and corn starch. Set aside.

2. In wok over high heat, stir-fry onion and bell pepper with a tablespoon of peanut oil for 2 minutes or so, until starting to soften. Set aside and keep warm.

3. Add enough oil to wok to fry sliced clam in batches. Beat eggs and add to corn starch. Batter should be thick; add more corn starch if necessary. Batter and fry sliced clams until golden, then remove to paper towels. Set aside and keep warm.

4. After carefully disposing fry oil, quickly make sauce. Add 3 tablespoons peanut oil to wok over medium heat. Stir-fry garlic and ginger for 30 seconds. Add stock and bring to boil, then add the prepared sauce ingredients. Stir the sauce as it thickens, then add scallions and sesame oil.

5. Serve the vegetables over rice and topped with the fried clam. Pour sauce over.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Great geoducks, Batman!

A boy never forgets his first 'duck. Or his first German TV documentary shoot...

Mare TV is in town, taking in the Seattle waterfront and its multi-splendored offerings of scenery, food, and fun. They were especially keen to sample what the old-timers politely call horseneck, so we saddled up the whole FOTL gang in our trusty Folksvagen and rode a ferry over to the far side of Puget Sound with a Hood Canal geoduck in mind.

These low-low summer tides are generally the most pleasant time to dig a three or four foot hole on the beach and wrestle a horseneck out of the mud. On Sunday we had a -3 foot low tide to get excited about but wouldn't you know the first heat wave of the season had passed by and a new marine layer (wonky weatherman-speak for shitty weather) was moving in. (No doubt you've heard about Seattle's two seasons: winter and August. Da-dum-dum. I'll be here all week.) This presented some problems. Barometric pressure, I learned, can cause a tide to lose its edge. In this case, the water wasn't draining off the flats the way one would normally expect for such a low tide. What's more, a breezy chop was causing wave action that muddied the water and had the geoducks mostly hunkering down into their lairs. Even the geoduck-sniffing dogs were getting blanked.

We did find one good show, though, and that's all that mattered. My pal John Adams, proprietor of the family-owned Skookum Point Shellfish Farm at the convergence of Little Skookum and Totten Inlets in Shelton, was on hand to offer his shellfish expertise. (If you ever have a chance to slurp down some of his beach-grown Skookum Point oysters, don't hesitate—they're some of the best I've ever eaten.)

This 'duck turned out to be an obstinate one. Even after Riley touched the tip of his siphon he (or she) refused to back down, keeping its neck extended like a middle digit. After digging a couple feet down next to the burrow we could see why: the clam was way down there, deeper than most, and firmly ensconced in sediment that was more like wet cement than loose sand or mud. I suppose it felt secure in its holdings. Riley wasn't deterred—he told his dad to keep digging!

The tide was on its way back in when we finally pulled the 4-pound clam from its burrow. Tradition dictated that Riley give his first 'duck a big kiss. He didn't flinch.

Later in camp, with a terrific view of the estuary, we picnicked with our 'duck, enjoying a later afternoon ceviche and some good local beer. I'm sorry to say the Germans weren't so impressed by Pike Stout—they're pilsner drinkers, after all—but the geoduck ceviche got gobbled up in no time. This ceviche, using the neck exclusively, was similar to the one I wrote about here, with the exception that we substituted mango for papaya. I'm thinking I might cook the body meat in a sweet and sour sauce tonight.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sea-Flavor Noodles with Porcini

Regular readers know I have a thing for Fuchsia Dunlop (even if I have to look up Fuchsia each time I need to spell it). More to the point: I like Sichuan, and Dunlop's cookbook Land of Plenty is a prized resource on this front.

Not too long ago I would have scoffed at the idea of cooking Sichuan at home, but over time I've collected a small arsenal of Chinese pastes, oils, and other condiments, which is half the battle. Last month I made Fish-Fragrant Geoduck with Morels and in April Dry-fried Chicken with Fiddleheads.

This will probably be my last fling with spring porcini this year. Nearly constant mushroom hunting and cookery has put a strain on the household here at FOTL headquarters and it's time to start thinking about summer berries. Plus, I've been told to paint the house before our little piece of Appalachia sinks any deeper into the mire.

Sea-Flavor Noodles with Porcini is an adaptation of Dunlop's own adaptation of Mr. Xie's Sea-Flavor Noodles, taken from a noodle house near Sichuan University in Chengdu. I substituted shrimp paste (which I had on hand) for dried shrimp (which I didn't) and added fresh shrimp as well. For the mushrooms I used dried porcini in place of dried Chinese fungi as well as fresh porcini in place of button mushrooms. Dried matsutake would be another good choice, or dried shiitake.

I find it interesting that spring porcini has not found it's way into the cuisine of West Coast Asian restaurants. Maybe it's too expensive. Or maybe it just isn't considered authentic enough (there's that ridiculous word again). But the fact is, spring porcini lends itself quite well to Asian-style foods. It has a firm texture that one could almost call crunchy, and its mild flavor goes with almost anything—in fact, spring porcini has a tendency to take on the flavors of whatever it's cooked with, making it a great mushroom for tossing in the wok with a bunch of aromatic ingredients.

The other night I had dinner at Mashiko, the only sustainable sushi parlor in Seattle, with my friend Casson Trenor, author of Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time. Mashiko is amazing on so many levels I just don't know where to start, but suffice to say one can eat VERY well without raping the sea. Chef Hajime (@sushiwhore on Twitter) is an artist who cares about the resource. We brought him some porcini from a foraging trip the previous day and Hajime used the mushrooms along with scallops, clams, and oysters to make an intensely rich hot dish served in an enormous oyster shell. He pronounced the porcini "Good." Yes indeedy!

Here's the Sea-Flavor Noodles with Porcini recipe:

1 oz dried porcini
3 tbsp peanut oil
1/2 lb pork loin, thinly sliced
1/2 lb porcini, chopped
2 tbsp Chinese cooking wine (Shaoxing)
6 oz bamboo shoots
1 tsp shrimp paste
1 tbsp chili paste
1 quart chicken stock
1/2 lb shrimp
12 oz fresh Chinese noodles
3 scallions, minus white bulbs, chopped

1. Reconstitute dried mushrooms in a bowl with a cup of warm water. Set aside for 30 minutes. When mushrooms have reconstituted, wring out excess water back into bowl, reserving mushroom water for later.

2. Heat oil in wok or deep saute pan over high flame. Add sliced pork loin and cook for a few minutes until meat loses its color. Add fresh and reconstituted porcini and stir-fry another couple minutes. Splash with Shaoxing wine, stirring, and add bamboo shoots. Stir-fry another minute.

3. Add shrimp paste and chili paste, stirring well, then stock and reserved mushroom water. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for an hour until pork is tender.

4. When meat is ready, season soup with salt and pepper to taste. Add shrimp and allow to cook for a couple minutes before serving. Boil noodles in separate pot or simply add to bowls and ladle over hot soup. Garnish with scallions.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Tagliolini with Porcini Sauce

We celebrated a friend's birthday the other night at one of my favorite recent additions to the Seattle restaurant scene, a cozy little trattoria called Cascina Spinasse. Four hours later, after multiple courses and wines—and a midnight votive incident that luckily didn't torch the place—we stumbled home. But the next day I just had to call the restaurant to ask them about their porcini pasta. Amazingly, the chef answered the phone and gave me step-by-step instructions.

In the tradition of typical Piedmontese food, the dish is simple yet flavorful, more than the sum of its parts. We made it at home that night and I'm happy to say the re-creation did the original proud. You don't need gobs of porcini to make this pasta—a half-pound is more than enough for two, and you can get by with a quarter-pound.

Martha liked it because no cream was involved. Fresh pasta is essential. Every time I make my own pasta I vow to never go back to the industrial-made stuff. We decided on tagliolini because that felt like the right size to go with the finely chopped porcini. Two other important points: First, caramelize the porcini until lightly browned but don't overcook the mushrooms into hard little nuggets; and second, use the best chicken stock you can get (or make).

10 oz fresh pasta
1/2 lb fresh porcini (or less), cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbsp olive oil, divided
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup or more chicken stock (or vegetable)
2 tbsp butter
small handful parsley, chopped
salt and pepper

1. Saute cubed porcini over medium heat in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until caramelized. Remove from pan.

2. Saute onion and garlic in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until soft. Return porcini to pan and stir together. Deglaze with white wine, cooking until nearly evaporated.

3. Add chicken stock, a few splashes at a time, allowing sauce to cook down before adding more liquid. Adjust for seasoning.

4. Just before pasta is ready, add 2 tablespoons of butter to sauce. Toss pasta with sauce and parsley.

It's that easy. Spring porcini are mild flavored, much more so than their fall brethren. Caramelizing helps to concentrate the flavor and the wine-chicken stock reduction is savory without overwhelming the delicate flavor of the mushrooms. This will be a dish we go back to each year when the spring porcini are popping in the mountains.