Saturday, August 28, 2010


Maybe this is one of those had to be there moments but I can't resist sharing this short video with you all. The past two weeks of cabin-sitting a friend's place off the grid in the remote Rogue River Canyon of southwestern Oregon was mostly a quiet affair, a vacation away from cell phones, laptops, blogging, Twitter, and the rest of the plugged-in foofaraws. 

Instead we basked in that rare Cascadian commodity, sunlight. These were dog days to be sure, with a few afternoons hitting triple digits. We swam in the river and didn't think twice about unanswered emails or what wild food options might be afoot. For that matter, the foraging was slim anyway. Chinook salmon had already pushed through on their way to upstream spawning grounds and fall steelhead had yet to arrive; it was still too dry for mushrooms and the evergreen huckleberries were just beginning to form hard, green little nodules on the bushes.

Come dusk, though, when the heat dropped a notch and does brought their fawns to the meadow to browse, the lazy day was given a jolt of earthly electricity...

Friday, August 20, 2010

First Brookie on the Fly

Okay, maybe it wasn't exactly his first. Last year Riley hooked and caught a brookie on the fly with help from his dad. But this year the kid decided nine years old was about the right age to pick up a fly rod unaided, and who am I to argue? It will be sad to finally say goodbye to the Scooby-Do rod—we’ve had some good times with that stalwart member of our family angling arsenal. Riley caught trout, bass, steelhead, and even salmon off the beach with the Scooby-Do rod but he’s ready for what he calls a big boy rod.

We practiced on the pond in Colorado while visiting his grandparents. Seeing him throw a 9-foot 5-weight rod is a little comical—he’s dwarfed by the thing—but really no matter how big or heavy the rod, it’s all a matter of timing, and Riley seems to have a pretty good understanding already of what it takes to make a good cast, even in the wind. The first fish surprised us both and after a brief tussle broke the line. We regrouped with another fly and the next fish wasn’t so lucky—it was a big rainbow that Riley released because he wanted to eat a brookie.

The third fish was the hoped-for brookie and now the fight was on. I had the film rolling when—cripes!—my memory card crapped out. Anyway, I managed to catch some of the action and completed the video with a couple stills of his catch, a nice brookie that got pan-fried within the hour.

The next day I took Riley to a stretch of the Yampa River known for its huge rainbows, a tailwater section below Stagecoach Reservoir where tiny flies and fine tippets are the order of the day. Most anglers nymph this stretch, which is to say they fish wet flies subsurface under strike indicators. I’ll nymph if I have to but dry-fly fishing—the excitement of a slashing strike at the surface—is my preference and I figured it would be a better introduction to moving water if Riley could watch the progress of his fly and see how mending his line could make a difference along with all the other skills required to successfully fish a dry fly. 

The upshot: more of those dudes hunkered over their #22 RS2s and bobbers ought to try tossing something as unassuming as a #14 parachute adams—it worked for Riley!

Ed. note: I value your comments and will respond to this and previous posts as soon as I return from a week off the grid in the Rogue River Canyon. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Angel Dust

You hear the same old quote repeated endlessly about fennel pollen, something about the sprinkling of spice from the wings of angels. Let's just call it angel dust. You remember that stuff from late-night cop movies—a drug that made users goofy and totally out of their heads. Like truffles, saffron, and a handful of other exotic, pricey, and painstakingly harvested goodies, fennel pollen enjoys the same reputation in certain quarters.

I happened on a patch of wild fennel in late July when I was scouting locations for a class on urban foraging, part of a summer course offered by Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle called "The Art of Food." I was looking for ripening blackberry bushes in the downtown core when I saw these towering thickets of yellow blooms adjacent to a parking lot in the International District. Sure enough, the blooms—some of them several feet high and buzzing with bees—turned out to be wild fennel plants.

Who knows how they got here. They might have been planted on purpose long ago by Italian immigrants who populated my own nearby neighborhood in Rainier Valley, when small agricultural plots still existed within the city limits, a place fondly remembered as Garlic Gulch. Fennel is technically a weed in this country but it's native to the Mediterranean and has always been a favorite vegetable and spice of Greek, Italian, and other culinary traditions from that region.

I don't have much experience with fennel pollen. I've eaten meats dusted with it in restaurants and that's about it. In my car I found a pair of scissors and some paper grocery bags (always useful to have nearby) and set to work. Basically I just looked for the best blooms and snipped them at the stem right below the flower head. It didn't take long to collect two full grocery bags of flowers. These I bunched together with the blooms facing down into the bag, stems tied. For the next several days I allowed the flowers to drop their tiny orange pellets of pollen and occasionally gave the bags a shake to speed the process along, a tip I gleaned from this article.  By the end of the week I had accumulated about three tablespoons of the stuff. That's not a typo: 3 tbsp! Go crazy, huh.

The thing of it is, though, you don't need much fennel pollen to jazz up a cut of meat or add an ineffable savoriness to vegetables. For my first try I used a couple teaspoons with pork chops (considered a classic combo in the Old Country) on a bed of sauteed broccoli from the garden. I rolled the fatty end of the chops in the pollen before grilling, then dusted the remnants on the broccoli as it cooked in the pan. One of the chops—the control—was left untreated as a comparison.

I can say that the pollen added an almost sweet dimension to the pork chops with its hint of anise, though in this forager's opinion it was the broccoli that really shined; somehow that fennel fairy dusting gave the veggies a brightness, an aliveness, that they otherwise would have lacked. The rest of my pollen, all two-plus tablespoons, went into a spice jar, awaiting the next experiment. While I don't expect to become an angel dust junkie anytime soon, you know what they say about pollen being a gateway drug...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Strawberry Fields

While hunting porcini the other day in the Colorado Rockies we stumbled on a large patch of wild strawberries (Fragraria sp.). Score! It seems I never find wild strawberries back home before the animals get to them, but for whatever reason we hit the jackpot on this less familiar ground.

The strawberry is one of those edible plants little improved by domestication. Sure, garden varieties are more prolific, with bigger berries, but their taste seldom rivals the complex strawberry flavor of their wild progenitors. In fact, the native strawberry patch is a perfect place for a wild food skeptic to have a Demascan Road moment—the small red, intensely flavorful berries are an object lesson in the providence of nature and testament to the fact that our tinkering is not always an improvement. My friends, who were along for the mushroom hike, had never eaten wild strawberries before and were quite simply blown away that something this delicious could be growing so inconspicuously on the forest floor.

Wild strawberries are found through much of the temperate world and across most of North America. Look for them in clearings, forest margins, and along roadsides and trails. Though frequently found in shady woods, they need ample sunlight to fruit. Woodland critters crave them as much as we do and my experience has been that the biggest obstacle to eating a handful of wild strawberries is not in locating the plants but in returning at just the right time to pluck ripe berries before the squirrels and rabbits and box turtles finish them off.

If your timing is good, you'll find the next difficulty is living beyond the moment and putting a few aside for later to top pancakes and so on. The hand-to-mouth impulse proved too strong for us. There would be no conveying any berries home. Instead we happily sat in the dirt and gathered handfuls to eat as fast as we could pick.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Rocky Mountain Kings

The biggest fruitings of king boletes I've ever seen haven't been in the Pacific Northwest. No, the Rockies own that distinction, in particular the high montane reaches of northern Colorado. We visit this region every year to see family. I can think of three separate occasions when I've hit the porcini jackpot dead-on. The first was a solo backpacking-fishing trip on the Colorado-Wyoming border that gave me my first inkling of what the Rockies could do from a mycophagist standpoint; the second an all-day singletrack mountain bike through high meadows not far from a gap in the Gore Range where the Colorado River punches out of Middle Park; and the third this week southeast of Steamboat Springs.

I don't visit the Rockies enough to have firm beliefs about the mushroom hunting possibilities here, but this is what I've gathered so far. August is generally the month to check your porcini spots. If it's not a drought year and normal patterns of afternoon showers prevail, start looking a few days after the rains start. Go high. Get above the lodgepole pine forests into more mixed coniferous forests, especially spruce. Here's a shot of a "king with a view" just below an 11,000-foot pass in the Zirkel Wilderness. 

A mushroom hunter from Seattle would be forgiven if he was confused by the taxonomy of these kings. Though clearly an edible form of bolete with its white pores (in young specimens) and faint pink netting on the stipe (reticulation, in the parlance), these kings routinely exhibit much darker caps, sometimes a deep wine-red, that contrast sharply with the tan, sometimes pale caps of Cascade kings. Still, they are currently classified as the same species as the world-renowned kings of Italy, the Pacific Northwest, and elsewhere: Boletus edulis

The taste, though mushroomy and choice, might not be quite as nutty as Cascade fall porcini. Which brings me to my main question: Why the lack of a commercial culture surrounding this mushroom in the Rockies? Is the territory too remote? A lack of demand? Is this subspecies of king considered inferior to other varieties and therefore not sought after? I've never seen another pot hunter around here, never a buy station, never encountered that bane of the Northwest mushroomer: the cut stem. Maybe we're far enough from Denver here to escape the competition.

To the south of me, in the pine forests of the Southwest, there's another king bolete (currently classified as its own species) that some say is the best tasting of all the world's porcini: the white king bolete, Boletus barrowsii. Supposedly it fruits earlier than other kings. One of these years I'll make a roadtrip in July to suss out this hallowed variety of porcini. In the meantime, I'm loving my quietly regal Rocky Mountain kings.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sassy Saskatoons

Sassy might be overstating it. More like solid. Saskatoon berries and their close relatives in the Amelanchier genus fruit in 49 of 50 U.S. states (sorry Hawaii) and what they lack in edge or mystery they gain in abundance and flexibility. Saskatoons can be used in pies, cobblers, jams, sauces, and really whatever you require of a versatile berry, including pemmican. But get this: they're not really a berry...

Saskatoons (Amelanchier alnifoliaare more commonly known as serviceberries, sarvisberries, juneberries, or shadbush on the Atlantic Coast where they flower right around the time the shad run. The fruits are pulpy and reminiscent of blueberries both in look and taste, although their seeds have a nutty flavor and botanists will tell you the fruits are actually pomes, making them relatives of apples and pears.

I missed the main fruiting of sakatoons in Washington this summer, but here in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where we're visiting the rellies, saskatoon berries are in full flush. Near the Sarvis Creek Wilderness—a place that might have been named for the abundance of sarvisberries—I fished the Yampa River for monstrous rainbows while Ruby and Marty loaded up on the berries. 

Harvesting saskatoons is one of those exercises in berry-picking that will restore your faith in the process after earning a case of carpal tunnel from red huckleberries: the berries are big and hang in clusters that make for easy pickins and quick buckets. That is, if it's a decent crop. Some years the fruits are less than plentiful.

We made pie with ours.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Purslane Salad

The best things in life are free—and easy. Take this weed salad that uses purslane as the featured ingredient. It's delicious in inverse proportion to the time and skill required to make it. Which is to say it's really good and really simple.

First, a word about weeds. You've heard me extol their virtues before. If you're still a non-believer that weeds can save the world, I insist you try this recipe. Most Americans are busy pulling purslane (Portulaca oleracea—same family as miner's lettuce) right now if they're thinking about it at all—and pulling their hair out, too, because like Himalayan blackberry purslane can never be vanquished. But it can be eaten. 

Here's what you do. Pick a bunch of purslane, stem it (making sure to keep many of the leaf clusters intact), and toss it with a chopped sweet onion such as a Walla Walla and a large ripe heirloom tomato. That's it. Season with salt and pepper and allow the tomato juice to form the dressing; squeeze a chunk of tomato into the salad if necessary to get the juices flowing.

You'll be amazed by the results. Purslane has a crunchy texture and a complex flavor that marries perfectly with the acidic tomato juice and sweetness of the onion. Jon Rowley turned me onto this salad last summer at an oyster fest and we ate it again the other day when I dropped by his house to pilfer a few of the shoots for my own garden. 

That's right, I'm planting weeds!