Thursday, December 29, 2011

Loss of a Friend

My friend Christina Choi passed away yesterday.

Christina was a nurturing soul who loved to feed people with her food, warmth, and good spirit. During its brief run, her restaurant Nettletown in Seattle developed a devoted following and probably offered the highest ratio of wild to conventional food of any regularly operating restaurant in the country. To eat at Nettletown was to know exactly what was growing wild at that very moment somewhere in the mountains, woods, or river valleys just beyond the city. This was one of the reasons why you had to be back next week—there was always something new coming into season, prepared in an unfussy way that allowed the ingredient's singular qualities to shine.

Another reason was Christina herself. The kitchen couldn't contain her. She needed to come out and visit with her customers—and we needed to bask in her glowing presence.

One time I brought a class of high schoolers to Nettletown. All week we had been foraging for wild foods as part of a week-long experiential course, in the Cascades, along the shore, even in a Seattle park. Our visit to Nettletown was a reward of sorts for the effort the students had put into the class and also a reminder of how food brings people together. Christina looked tired to me that day and I was worried about her. The hurly-burly of the restaurant business seemed to be taking a toll. Nevertheless, she rose to the occasion, coming out of her busy kitchen to spend time with the kids. She talked passionately about the various wild foods on the menu and where they came from, their high nutritious value and unique flavors. Afterward, on the bus ride back to school, several of the students told me how much of an impression Christina had made on them. "She's rad," one tenth grader said—high praise.

I usually visited Nettletown with my notebook and camera. My plan was to write a comprehensive post about this unlikely restaurant and its food over the course of a year's seasons, highlighting many of my favorite dishes. But just as soon as the experiment had begun, it was over. The restaurant closed at the end of August this year. In some ways I wasn't surprised. When I asked Christina about it, she said she was exhausted and needed to take care of her health. Like her cooking, she was direct, honest, and true to herself.

After months of not feeling like her usual self, Christina finally saw a neurologist. On December 12 she was diagnosed with a 5-cm brain aneurysm and went into surgery two days later. As feared, the aneurysm burst during surgery, and more complications followed. She died on December 28 while surrounded by the love of her family. She was 34.

We will miss you, Christina, the many of us who you nurtured with your food and kindness.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Truffle Time

The holiday season isn't just about turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. It's also peak time for truffles. And few foods can make us swoon like these odd fungal tubers. Properly prepared, they might be the sexiest of all our ingredients, evoking even more intense longing than oysters or chocolate. But how many people in this country, even food-obsessed people, can say they've had a mind-blowing truffle experience? Part of the problem is that we don't have a truffle culture here in the U.S. comparable to the truffle cultures of France or Italy. Home cooks don't know how to shop for truffles or how to prepare them—and, sadly, neither do many restaurateurs, for that matter.

Next month I plan to attend the Oregon Truffle Festival, ground zero for the emerging homegrown truffle culture. The festival is in its seventh year and will feature an assortment of events, from meals and cooking demos to a forum for would-be truffle farmers. My friend Jack Czarnecki will be cooking up some serious truffle fare with his son Chris, chef-owner of Willamette Valley's famed Joel Palmer House. Other luminaries include Jim Trappe, one of the authors of the Field Guide to North American Truffles, Molly O'Neil, the former New York Times food columnist, and numerous guest chefs, including Josh Feathers of Tennessee's Blackberry Farm and  Robin Jackson of the Sooke Harbour House in Sooke, B.C., among others. There's even a truffle dog-training seminar.

Oregon truffle country is also wine country
A quick primer: truffles are ectomycorrhizal fungi that partner with certain species of trees (Douglas-firs for the edible varieties in the Pacific Northwest) in mutually beneficial relationships that involve the exchange of nutrients and water. The truffle's reproductive strategy is to produce a scent irresistible to certain mammals (e.g., voles, flying squirrels...and humans) that will hungrily dig up the truffle, eat it, and spread its spores.

Describing truffles is no easy task. They're not much to look at. But, oh, that aroma... It's musky, sometimes fruity or garlicky, always earthy and, for lack of a better word, funky. Some would say it's an aroma more appropriate to a honeymoon suite than a dining room table.

For those who want to forage their own, I'd recommend training your dog. I've foraged truffles with and without dogs and can report that my success rate went up exponentially with the hound. Sniffing out truffles is no problem for canine smellers, and generally the truffles will be of better quality, which is to say, riper.

Jack Czarnecki with fresh truffles
And therein lies the main problem facing our native truffle industry: too many unripe truffles are being foraged and sold to consumers who don't know any better. Case in point: A friend of mine bought a local black truffle at a Seattle market the other day and showed it to me proudly. She had big plans for the truffle. I took a whiff. Nothing. The truffle had absolutely no aroma whatsoever. "Take it back and demand a refund," I told her. She was crestfallen, her dinner plans thwarted.

Be sure to examine your truffle before buying. It should be dry, firm, and pungent. Black truffles, to my nose, smell fruity, somewhat like overripe pineapple, with a distinctly fungal underpinning that is strange and beguiling. White truffles are more garlicky and can pack a wallop. Like other complex foods (e.g., wine, chocolate), the taste and aroma will vary for individual palates. Some people go to pieces in the presence of truffles, while others wonder why the fuss.

Once your truffle is conveyed safely home you'll need to take precautions in serving it. Slice it thinly over hot food. A little goes a long way. Simply shaved over buttered pasta is a classic way to enjoy the singular essence of truffles. The heat of the pasta reacts with the truffle and the fat in the butter serves to absorb the flavor. Prolonged cooking, on the other hand, will destroy the delicate molecular design of its scent. I don't understand recipes that call for inserting slivers of truffle in a piece of meat before roasting. The cooking process will likely obliterate the truffle flavor—but perhaps there are ways to pull off such a feat. I'll be sure to report back on what I learn about cooking with truffles at the Oregon Truffle Festival.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Eat Your Weedies

Is wild food the new pork belly? My Google alert for "foraging" dings nearly every day with a fresh article on the joys of finding and cooking wild edibles. The New Yorker jumped on the bandwagon recently in their annual food issue with a piece by Jane Kramer in which she forages her way across Europe. The last 18 months have seen the publication of foraging guide books by my pal Hank Shaw with Hunt, Gather, Cook (reviewed here) and Sam Thayer's Nature's Garden (reviewed here); a memoir, The Feast Nearby, by Robin Mather; and Connie Green's cookbook The Wild Table.

Is any of this ink actually getting people into the outdoors to interact with their landscape and maybe find a bit of dinner? It's hard to know. There's a learning curve, after all, which is a hurdle in an era of instant gratification and short attention spans. Certainly there is no single resource that can put you on the trail to wild harvesting. Some of the books out there, such as Thayer's, are broad field guides that will only be partly useful in any given region; others, such as Shaw's, are part field guide and part inspiration to give you a kick in the pants;  the recipe books mostly work in the kitchen; and the memoirs are strictly food for thought.

Would-be foragers who I've met over the years seem most intimidated by issues of identification and processing. Enter John Kallas and his new "Wild Food Adventure Series." His first volume in what  promises to be a collection of related titles is Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate. Newbies looking for a single resource to get started will be well served by this jam-packed book. It's extremely detailed yet limited in scope. The book only covers a handful of plant species that are common throughout most of North America. More advanced foragers might be put off (only 20 species?) but beginners will be thankful for the depth that replaces breadth.

Kallas spotlights those ubiquitous globetrotting wild edibles common to backyard, field margin, abandoned lot, and even sidewalk crack: the weeds. And not even all the usual weeds. Stinging nettles, for instance, don't make the cut. Kallas does cover other common weeds, from lambsquarters (called wild spinach here) to purslane, and wintercress to shepherd's purse. These are truly omnipresent plants that should be on every forager's menu. Many of these species will be familiar right away while others might trigger a memory of this or that unidentified weed that landed in your compost. Thumbing through these pages you might have the sudden realization that the giant spiny thing growing from your neighbor's planting strip is a sow thistle—a highly nutritious plant that, when "managed appropriately," can be used in any preparation calling for collard greens.

Edible Wild Plants is divided into four categories that set expectations for taste: mild foundation greens (e.g., chickweed, mallow), tart greens (docks and sorrels), pungent greens (mustards), and bitter greens (dandelions, nipplewort). Entries for each species are detailed, including notes on identification, nutrition, and lifecycle. There are sub-sections for the different anatomical parts of the plant at various stages of life cycle: roots, sprouts, leaves, stems, buds, flowers, and seeds. Each stage of growth is described. Photos accompany all these stages and parts. There are additional sections on harvesting, processing, and cooking, with recipes. The entry on field mustard, for example, is more than 20 pages and includes instructions on harvesting both the vegetable-like flower buds and the seeds used for making the condiment mustard. There are even range maps.

I'm often asked about the sustainability of foraging. Obviously, if everyone went clamming tomorrow, the shellfish beds would be quickly depleted. But weeds are another story. The planet would be no worse off today if every American harvested weeds for the table this past Thanksgiving. This makes Kallas's introductory guide book a healthy addition to any forager's library.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Winter Mushrooms

It's not officially winter yet but we had a hard frost in Seattle the other morning and I-90 was closed at Snoqualmie Pass due to heavy snowfall. Most mushroom hunters figure, "Put a fork in the season. It's done."

Not so. This is the time of year to find cold-loving species such as hedgehogs and winter chanterelles (aka yellowfoot). Look for them in wet coastal woods where there's plenty of decay.

Recently I went picking with a friend on the Olympic Peninsula. Though not an epic year for late-season mushrooms (or any mushrooms, for that matter), we found decent numbers of bellybutton hedgehogs (Hydnum umbilicatum, pictured above and left) and spreader hedgehogs (Hydnum repandum). They're easily told apart. The bellybuttons are smaller, with proportionally longer stems and an "inny" of a bellybutton at the center of the cap, technically referred to as umbilicate. The spreaders can be much larger, with caps that develop scales or cracks. Both are delicious, with spicy hints of black pepper, nutmeg, and cardamon. Being fairly cold-tolerant, they'll last a long time in your fridge, too, often more than a week.

Yellowfoot chanterelles (above), also known as winter chanterelles, are not actually in the chanterelle genus; rather, they're considered a species of Craterellus, the same genus as black trumpets, and like that mushroom, they too are hollow, though with chanterelle-like ridges underneath the cap. In the Pacific Northwest our species is currently called Craterellus tubaeformis but may be changed to C. neotubaeformis as it appears to differ from the species found in the Eastern U.S. and Europe. Either way, yellowfoots have good chanterelle-like flavor despite their insubstantial size, and when they're on, you can pick them by the handful.

Recently I made two appetizer dishes with winter mushrooms. One was a crostini with yellowfoot and chicken liver. The other was a very rich and savory mushroom parfait of sautéed hedgehogs and yellowfoot with wheat berries and mascarpone.

The crostini was inspired by a meal I had at Jeremy Faber's house. Jeremy is the owner of Foraged and Found Edibles in Seattle and I think he served this dish because I had been bad-mouthing yellowfoots as soggy, tasteless chanterelle wannabes. He showed me that with the right approach, you can actually get a lot of flavor out of them, and despite the flimsy, wet noodle posture, they have good texture when properly cooked.

Brown a small handful of chicken liver in vegetable oil. Remove from the pan and crumble with the help of a potato masher. In the same pan, sauté a few big handfuls of whole yellowfoot mushrooms and deglaze with a healthy splash of soy sauce. Cook the mushrooms down in the soy until they release all their water and they're brown. They'll look almost like weird, squid-like tentacles. No need to add salt because the soy will be plenty salty; in fact, you might want to use a low-sodium variety. Mix back in the crumbled liver and serve over sliced and toasted baguette with a sprinkling of chopped parsley. The result is a serious umami bomb.

For the parfait, first prepare the wheat berries on the stove top. No matter how long you cook them they'll retain an al dente texture. I used three cups of chicken stock for a cup of berries and simmered in excess of an hour. This was much more than I needed. Next sauté a half-pound of chopped hedgehog and yellowfoot mushrooms in butter with a generous variety of chopped herbs (I used thyme, sage, and oregano). Season to taste. Remove to a bowl and mix in a few dollops of mascarpone. The mixture should be super creamy. Now mix in enough wheat berries so that the ratio is about 3:1 in favor of mushrooms. Serve in goblets with a sprinkling of chives on top.

The season's not over for those of us north of Oregon. Get out there and find some mushrooms.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Huckleberry Egg Custard

The other day while mushroom hunting out on the Olympic Peninsula, I came across some huckleberry patches that were absolutely loaded with ripe berries. My daughter is a huckleberry fanatic. She eats hucks with her pancakes, in her yogurt, over ice cream. Score!

I surprised Ruby with my huckleberry haul when she got home from school. We made egg custards for dessert and topped them with the fresh hucks. To be honest, I had never actually made an egg custard before, but after eating one of Donald Link's creamy, southern-style custards this summer while he was visiting Seattle for his "Taste of Place" webcast, I knew I wanted to add this simple dessert to the repertoire.

For that custard, Chef Donald used red huckleberries we picked together in the Cascades foothills in the middle of summer. Here it was nearly the end of mushroom season and we were still able to forage fresh huckleberries. This is a good example of why it's useful to recognize a variety of species in any particular genus. In Washington State we have 13 species of Vaccinium. Those in the know can pick ripe huckleberries as early as July and as late as December.

The evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) is an important species for us West Coasters. It's a lowland coastal variety, and it's usually the last of the huckleberries to fruit, often when other species are covered in snow. Clearcuts are a good place to find them, and anywhere else where they can get ample sun. They fruit in clusters, which means the picking is faster than it is with red huckleberries or mountain varieties. Some pickers use a bucket and simply shake the huckleberries off the branch.

More than likely, when you get your evergreen huckleberries home you'll also have a potpourri of twigs, leaves, and maybe a spider or two. The easiest way to clean your berries is to place them on a tray in batches, angle the tray slightly downward toward a colander, and start massaging the berries with the open palm of your hand. Roll them around so they part with their stems. Clean berries will roll down the tray and collect in the colander. Smashed berries, stems, and forest debris will remain on the tray.

The egg custard itself is simple as can be.

1 cup evaporated milk
1 cup water
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup huckleberries
fresh nutmeg or cinnamon, grated to taste

1. Pre-heat over to 325 degrees. Combine milk and water in a small saucepan and bring to boil.

2. Mix egg yolks, sugar, salt, and vanilla together in a bowl.

3. Slowly whisk in hot milk-water mixture until frothy. Pour into 4 ramekins.

4. Place ramekins in an oven-proof dish or tray filled with warm water. Bake for 40 minutes. Carefully place a small handful of huckleberries atop each custard and bake another 10 minutes. Test one for doneness with a knife tip; if it comes away clean, the custard is done. Sprinkle with fresh nutmeg or cinnamon. Serve hot or cold.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Sichuan Chicken & Matsutake with Vinegar

To spend several days with matsutake pickers in Oregon and not come home with even a flag for my efforts was something of a dropped ball. So I spent a day at the coast yesterday picking yellowfoot and hedgehogs plus a few lingering kings and chanterelles—and a surprise late flush of matsi. Yes!

They were fruiting on the edges of an old railroad grade in private timberlands where the steam donkeys once worked. The rusted donkeys are mostly gone now—scrapped by tweakers who have already stolen every catalytic converter they can scrounge—but the Aloha Tavern still waits faithfully at the edge of the cut, a plume of smoke curling out of its wood stove chimney, serving Busch tallboys at the end of the day beneath the conniving grin of the shake rat.

Apparently the coastal matsutake have been infested with cap-worms in a big way this year, but I got lucky with a bunch of nice, fat worm-free mushrooms.

Every fall I develop more appreciation for this truly singular mushroom. Recently I learned why I like it more in Eastern preparations than in Western: unlike mushrooms favored by French, Italian, and other Western culinary traditions (think porcini, chanterelle, morel), the flavors in matsutake are water-soluble (as opposed to fat soluble). This is why these mushrooms respond so well to soy, sake, and rice vinegar rather than butter, cream, and cheese.

When matsutake is on the menu I usually stick to traditional Japanese dishes, such as Sukiyaki and Gohan. This time I went with spicy Sichuan.

For those keeping score at home, since picking up a copy a year ago I've been working my way through Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty, a treasure trove of Sichuan recipes, adding my own forager's twist. Let's see. So far I've made Fish-fragrant Geoduck with Morels, Dry-fried Chicken with Fiddleheads, Sea-flavored Noodles with Porcini, and a few Kung Pao dinner party dishes with geoducks and morels that disappeared before I could get photographs for the blog.

This recipe is based on Dunlop's Chicken with Vinegar, with a few tweaks. Obviously the inclusion of matsutake is the biggest change. Also, I added dried red chili peppers and substituted chili bean sauce for pickled chili paste (which I'd like to try next time). The textures of the three main ingredients—chicken, matsutake, and celery—work in harmony, with all of them velvety smooth but with varying resistance to the tooth. The egg-battered chicken is tender as all get-out, and the matsutake mushrooms make an aromatic accompaniment that is in keeping with the original recipe, their spicy flavor mixing with the chili peppers and black vinegar in a way that amplifies the overall dish.

I guess everyone liked it because there were no leftovers.

1 lb chicken breast, cut into 1/2-inch by 1-inch pieces
1/2 lb (or more) matsutake, sliced 1/4-inch thin by 1-inch
3 celery stalks, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 heaping tbsp garlic, diced
1 heaping tbsp ginger, diced
2 tbsp chili bean sauce
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 handful dried red chili peppers
1 1/2 cups peanut oil

1 1/2 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
1/2 tsp salt

2 tbsp egg white
3 tbsp cornstarch

1 1/2 tsp white sugar
2 tsp Chinese black vinegar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 1/2 tsp cornstarch
3 tbsp chicken stock

1. After dicing chicken, mix with marinade in a bowl. Set aside.

2. Mix the sauce in a small bowl.

3. Add batter ingredients to marinated chicken and stir well in one direction.

4. Heat 1 1/2 cups peanut oil in wok over medium flame. Add the chicken and then the celery. Prod with chopstick to eparate chicken pieces and cook until just white. Remove chicken and celery from wok with slotted spoon. Drain all but 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil.

5. Return wok to high heat and add matsutake. Cook 5 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, and then remove with a slotted spoon.

6. Add chili sauce to wok, stirring, and cook 30 seconds. Stir in garlic, ginger, and chili peppers and cook another 30 seconds before returning chicken, celery, and matsutake to wok. Give the sauce a quick stir and add to wok. Cook all together another minute or two until sauce thickens. Serve immediately over rice.

Serves 4 with rice and another dish.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Matsutake Camp

This past weekend I traveled down to Oregon with photographer Eirik Johnson (check out his work here) to pitch my tent at a matsutake camp in the Central Cascades of Oregon, on the edge of the high windblown desert. (More on the unlikely setting later.)

We stayed at the smaller camp in the woods near Crescent Lake, where a mushroom buyer named Joy was kind enough to give us space behind his buy station. That night pickers trickled back into camp to sell their day's work to Joy, who was paying 20/20—twenty dollars a pound for both #1 and #2 matsutake buttons. The former (pictured at top) has an intact veil covering the gills—the preference of well-heeled customers in Japan, where these mushrooms were destined—while the latter is slightly marred by a small hole in the veil, as shown (barely) below if you click on the image. In any event, both grades fetch the same price in a year such as this, when the picking is poor and mushrooms are in demand.

That night we hung out by the fire with a couple pickers from Weed, California. Som, Laotian by birth, first started picking matsutake in the Crescent Lake area as a teenager with his mother. He'd been in camp since the highly regulated season opened after Labor Day. His dog Whiskey guarded the shelter by day.

Som's friend Forrest, pictured below with his day's pay, was picking for the first time since his usual construction work has dwindled. He told us the learning curve was steep—something we would learn firsthand the next day when we went picking with Joy and his kids.

Sometime after dark a refrigerated truck stopped at the buy station to collect 260 pounds of matsutake and drive it to Portland where it would be processed (cleaned and packed) and air-freighted to Japan so that the matsutake-crazed customers of that small island nation could shop for inividually-wrapped buttons at the market. Last year the nightly poundage at Joy's station might have been five times more.

I've picked plenty of matsutake in the past closer to home, which I usually cook in a traditional Japanese-style sukiyaki. But here on the edge of the desert the picking is entirely different. Whereas I look for mature fir trees in the North Cascades, most of the picking at Crescent Lake is in pine: lodgepole and ponderosa, with a smattering of Douglas-fir and true firs. In some cases the tree composition is all pine and the conditions surprisingly dry.

Matsutake, however, thrive in sandy soils, and the pumice-laden soil in this volcanically active area provides ideal habitat. Mount Mazama's eruption nearly 7,700 years ago created Crater Lake and dumped three to five feet of pumice on the surrounding hills. Though the ground appears dry and dusty, the pine needle duff holds enough moisture to promote great fruitings. Joy said that Japanese customers appreciate the chewy texture of high desert Oregon matsutake.

Picking matsutake in the pine forests around Lake Crescent on a year such as this, when the pick is small, is not for beginners like Forrest (though he was fortunate to have an expert mentor in Som). In a normal year a matsutake patch will announce itself with "flags" or "flowers"—fully emerged mushrooms that indicate the presence of smaller buttons hiding under the duff. This year even the #6 flowers were commanding a decent price, meaning everything was getting picked. And experienced pickers who knew how to find the concealed buttons were being careful to "control" their patches, as a buyer named Leo explained to me, by picking everything to eliminate any evidence of fruiting mushrooms and then visiting regularly to catch the buttons before they emerged.

Finding a matsutake button beneath the duff on a forest floor otherwise devoid of any sign of fungi, indeed a floor without a single mushroom anywhere in sight, is an art form. Joy showed us how it was done. He carefully scanned the ground of a known patch before pausing over what to me was an imperceptible rise in the duff. Using a metal staff that resembled a tire iron, he scraped away a small amount of forest debris to reveal the white cap of a matsutake button. He picked it stem and all without trimming anything (Japanese customers want the dirt attached at the end, as this signifies life force). Later, when I tried to find matsutake on my own in a stretch of woods filled with pickers, I got completely blanked.

Unlike Joy, Som, and Forrest, who prefer camping in the woods, most of the pickers and buyers are now based out of the town of Chemult, 20 miles down the road from Crescent Junction, where several business owners in town rent space for mushroom camps. Pickers and buyers have moved here in recent years to avoid onerous fees levied first by the Forest Service and now Hoodoo, a private concessionairre. Hoodoo has since cut its prices, but it may be too late to lure the pickers away from the comforts of town, which include electricity and nearby groceries.

Margins are thin in the wild mushroom trade and costs can be shaved in other interesting ways. One buyer in Chemult operated out of a shipping container.

We were lucky enough to visit the night of a big celebration in support of a Buddhist temple in Springfield, Oregon, where many of the Southeast Asian pickers live. Lao, Hmong, Mien, and Cambodian pickers celebrated by slaughtering a cow and then feasting on a dinner of beef tripe soup, beef larb, sticky rice, and barbecued ribs. A Laotian pop star stopped by en route during a U.S. concert tour to entertain. Even Buddhist monks were on hand to offer blessings.

Much has been said about the Wild West nature of the Crescent Lake and Chemult matsutake scene. Indeed, I heard many stories around the fire, stories for another time. Suffice it to say that I was impressed by the skill of the pickers and the sense of community that attends this unusual stop on the mushroom trail.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wok-fried Shrooms

I went a-pickin' this week. It's been a disastrous fall mushroom season in the Pacific Northwest, depending on your point of view. Hot temps the last two weeks of August followed by drought in September burned the primordia where it emerged from the duff, resulting in major crop failure for Cascade Mountain porcini, matsutake, and lobster mushrooms. Chanterelle patches burned and then partially recovered, owing to their long growth cycle, but some patches never produced while others are substantially reduced.

The most experienced commercial pickers and buyers, on the other hand, are making bank from the poor conditions. Prices are high and those who know where to go are lining their wallets. I joined a commercial picker friend earlier this week and loaded up on both golden and white chanterelles, porcini, hedgehogs, and a few matsutake, which are just starting to fruit in the coastal patches of Washington.

It's rained a lot in the past week and chanterelle pickers are advised to get 'em quick. Patches that were in good shape a week ago are now maybe 50-50, with big soggy flowers becoming the majority. (Sounds like the U.S. Congress.) Check out this picture below. There are maybe four dozen prime curled-cap goldens in the frame, perfect for the table. If you're into giant water-logged blooms, be my guest. We left them all behind.

And here's a very cool fairy ring of white chanterelles that I found near the goldens. These were in perfect condition despite their large size and probably weighed a few pounds all by themselves.

Back home I had a geoduck on hand from my shellfish farmer friend John Adams at Sound Fresh Clams & Oysters, so I made a quick Kung Pao with snap peas. The shrooms I decided to cook separately as a side dish. You know how at Chinese restaurants you get mushrooms in a silky smooth sauce? It's no secret—just corn starch. I used porcini, hedgehogs, chanterelles, shiitake, and enoki mushrooms, the latter two varieties purchased at my handy Mekong Market down the street.

This recipe is based on one by Fuchsia Dunlop. My changes included the use of duck fat and soy sauce.

1 lb mixed mushrooms, sliced
2 tbsp peanut oil
3 tbsp duck fat
1 heaping tbsp garlic, minced
1/3 cup chicken stock
1 tsp corn starch combined with
2 tsp soy sauce
salt, to taste

1. Heat peanut oil and duck fat wok over high flame until nearly smoking. Stir in garlic and cook until almost golden. Don't burn! Add mushrooms (if using enoki, put aside until later) and stir well. Cook a few minutes, then add enoki and cook another minute or so.

2. Add chicken stock. Bring to boil. Stir in mixture of corn starch and soy sauce. Continue to cook, stirring, until sauce thickens. Season to taste.

The final dish is a tender umami bomb—the ideal accompaniment to a spicy meat dish.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Salal Preserves

Salal, along with the tree that it often associates, Douglas fir, is one of the most iconic plants of the Pacific Northwest. You might even say it's a well known shrubbery. And if saying this word makes you want a shrubbery, well then you might just have to watch this.

Back to salal. The binomial is Gaultheria shallon. It's a member of the heath family, Ericaceae. In researching this post, I was surprised to learn that the so-called berries are not technically berries at all—they're swollen sepals. The leaves are edible, too, and were used by Native Americans. I haven't tried them myself. Salal's main economic use today is for floral displays. The foliage is harvested by brush pickers and exported all over the world.

Most hikers aren't enamored of salal. A thick understory of salal can be nearly as impenetrable to the bushwhacker as a forest of devil's club, and while the berries are much sweeter than that other iconic Northwest shrubbery—Oregon grape—they're also pulpy and nutty in a way that is unfamiliar.

It's getting late in the lowlands of the Pacific Northwest to harvest salal berries, but you're likely to still find some at higher elevations, along with Oregon grape. I gathered mine a few weeks ago and made preserves. Not quite jelly and not quite jam, this is more like a salal spread. I used a limited amount of sugar to retain the salal flavor and tartness. It will be perfect for breakfast scones and dinner cheese plates.

8 cups salal berries
2 cups water
4 tbsp lemon juice, divided
1 cup sugar
1/2 pouch liquid pectin

1. Simmer the berries, water, and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice for several minutes. Mash with a potato masher. Strain through fine-mesh seive and/or cheesecloth. My yield was 3 cups.

2. Return strained berry juice to pot. Add sugar, 2 more tablespoons of lemon juice, and pectin. Bring to boil.

3. Pour into sterilized jars. Secure lids and process 10 minutes in hot water bath.

My yield was 4 half-pint jars.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Fascinating Fungi

I spent the first 22 years of my life in and around New England, oblivious to the diversity of fungi in the neighborhood. The other day my brother was visiting our parents in Connecticut and noticed a parade of mushrooms on the lawn. Identifying fungi via smart phone is a notoriously dumb idea, so I'm sending them a copy of Lawrence Millman's new field guide to the Fascinating Fungi of New England.

Millman is a mycologist and adventure writer living in the Boston area. I first met him virtually when we exchanged copies of our books a year ago. His Last Places: A Journey to the North is a witty jaunt to the bleak yet beautiful ports of call at the top of the world. A field guide may seem like a different sort of embarkation for a writer of Millman's abilities—and we should all be thankful for this detour.

Millman joins David Arora as a practitioner of an increasingly popular genre—the nature field guide—who refuses to sacrifice points of style and wordsmithing. Because of their work, mycology enjoys a clear advantage over other related disciplines (birding, botany, butterflies, and so on) in the reading department. You might just as likely read Millman's description of Amanita muscaria before bed as leaf through the book looking for that strange Agaricus in your compost pile.

The "fascination" of the title is well earned. Through sidebars and species descriptions peppered with oddball details, Millman explores any number of fungal fronts, from the bioluminescence of mushrooms to the world's largest organism, a species of honey mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae) covering 3.5 square miles of Oregon's Malheur National Forest.  On the bleeding tooth (Hydnellum peckii), he explains that the red droplets oozing from an otherwise white fruiting body are not the result of a "bad dental problem"; rather, the fungus is engaging in the little understood act of guttation—exuding reddish water—possibly to allow for better sporulation. The train wrecker (Lentinus lepideus), with a mycelium resistant to creosote, gets its common name from a tendency to fruit on milled timber such as railway ties or telephone poles.

Millman's identifying tips are clear and detailed, and the color illustrations by Rick Kollath are quite good, with handy visual cues such as spore prints and gill types (e.g. adnate, free, etc.). But it is the rest of the text that will inspire closer outdoor observation and keep you thumbing through the pages—to see whether that cluster of morbid protrusions in the flower bed is the dead man's fingers (Xylaria longipes) or whether the ruffed grouse look-alike on the maple out back is the tasty and salubrious hen of the woods, aka maitake (Grifola frondosa).

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Camper's Fettuccine Alfredo with Smoked Salmon & Asparagus

Any idea what this is?

Okay, let's take a step back for a better look.

Yes, it's my smoker. I think I may be in lurve with it. Smoked food is good food. Smoke up a whole chicken and you might never roast one again. Pork shoulder, brisket, oysters—it's all good, as the kids say.

And nothing beats smoked salmon. This is how I eat salmon year-round. Brined, smoked, and vacuum-packed. You can keep it in your freezer for a long time, too. Truth be told, we still have a few packages left over from the epic pink run of oh-nine. This year's run was just as big and I put more poundage away for a rainy day.

The pink salmon is an ideal fish for kids. They're eager biters and small enough—usually around five pounds—to be landed on light tackle. This year's run had some noticeably bigger fish. I netted one pushing 10 pounds, and my boy lost a monster at the beach.

One of my kids' favorite camp meals is Tuna Noodle Surprise. We gussied up this classic comfort meal with pink salmon right out of the smoker, fresh fettuccine, alfredo sauce, and asparagus. 

9oz fresh fettuccine
1/4 lb (or more) smoked salmon, cut into bite-size pieces
1/4 lb asparagus, cut into 3-inch segments
4 tbsp butter
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup grated parmesan
fresh-ground black pepper
grated nutmeg to taste

Melt butter over medium heat in a small saucepan and whisk in cream. Reduce until slightly thickened. Add smoked salmon and several grindings of pepper to sauce. Meanwhile, cook pasta. Add asparagus to boiling pasta water for last minute or two of cooking, depending on thickness of asparagus. Drain pasta and asparagus. Toss in large bowl with the sauce, salmon, and parmesan cheese. Season with salt and a few grindings of nutmeg.

This can all be accomplished quite handily on a Coleman two-burner camp stove. Heck, you could make it on a single-burner stove. The salmon smokes up easier at home when you have a couple hours to kill and a six-pack of Rainier, but even that task could probably be managed on the camp stove with a sheet of aluminum foil and a few twigs of green alder. Eating well in camp is an art form, after all.