Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sichuan Dry-Fried Fiddleheads

Some of our wild foods get points for style. Fiddleheads, f'rinstance. They're just so cool to look at.

In my neck of the woods it's fiddlehead time right now. In fact, those at sea level have already unscrolled their lovely coiled shoots, but several hundred feet higher in the lower foothills of the Cascades the fiddleheads are just now awaking to spring (even though they got hailed on the other day) and stretching their arms  beside gurgling rivulets of runoff.

These are the young shoots of the lady fern, Athyrium felix-femina. East of the Rockies the fiddlehead of choice is the ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris.

The best way to forage a fiddlehead patch is to identify the adult ferns in summer, when their fronds are easily recognized, then go back in spring and pick the newly emerged fiddleheads. A good patch will be chockablock with ferns. In my region these patches are most often found in moist mixed woodlands, usually near water. Swamps, streamsides, estuaries, and other riparian areas offer suitable habitat. Sometimes disturbed ground can provide an opening for fiddlehead patches. I know of a long stretch of gently rolling terrain beneath powerlines where the trees have been cleared that is now home to lady ferns as far as the eye can see.

Once the fronds are fully leafed out they become toxic. Move up in elevation.

My own experience with lady fern fiddleheads is that their taste varies widely. Some are quite bitter, others are more buttery and rounded in flavor, like a cross between artichoke and asparagus. I haven't figured out why. Perhaps the flavor is influenced by soil ph or other environmental conditions. In any event, preparation can be tailored to suit taste. With a particularly bitter batch, I'll temper with butter, lemon juice, and salt in a simple fiddlehead pasta tossed with parmesan. Milder batches accompany meats or fish as a side dish. A fiddlehead frittata is an excellent way to enjoy them and I've also pickled fiddleheads. But my new preferred way to prepare fiddleheads is...

...Sichuan style. One of my favorite Sichuanese dishes—a signature preparation known to even casual admirers of the spicy cuisine from southwestern China—is Dry-fried String Beans. Using fiddleheads in place of string beans, I made a similar dish the other night to accompany Kung Pao Chicken. And it turned out even better than expected.

Prep the fiddleheads carefully. Soak in water a few minutes before rubbing off the papery sheaf with your fingers. Blanche in salted boiling water for a minute, then thoroughly dry with paper towels. Even a tiny amount of moisture can pop and sizzle dangerously in a hot wok.

1 lb fiddleheads, cleaned
1/4 lb ground pork
1/3 cup peanut oil
1 tbsp garlic, diced
1 tbsp ginger, diced
10 dried red chili peppers
1/4 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, ground
2 tbsp Sichuan preserved vegetable, chopped
3 scallion bulbs, chopped
2 tsp Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry)
1 tbsp chili bean sauce
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt, or more to taste

1. Combine rice wine, chili bean sauce, sesame oil, dark soy sauce, and sugar in small bowl to make sauce. Set aside.

2. Blanche fiddleheads for 1 minute in boiling, well-salted water. Remove and dry thoroughly with paper towels.

3. Heat oil in wok until nearly smoking, then add fiddleheads and stir-fry for a few minutes until beginning to blister. Remove to paper towels.

4. Pour off all but a tablespoon of oil and return to heat. Add garlic, ginger, chopped scallion bulbs, red chili peppers, preserved vegetable, and Sichuan peppercorns. Cook a minute until fragrant, then add ground pork. Stir-fry together until pork is browned. Return fiddleheads to wok, add reserved sauce, and stir-fry another minute to coat.

5. Sprinkle with salt and serve.

Friday, April 22, 2011

4 Courses

Literature is sustenance—we all know that—so why not pair writers with dinner? Join me on Wednesday, April 27, at the Richard Hugo House for an evening of food and words with myself and three other Seattle writers. Food will be provided by Tom Douglas, Taylor Shellfish, and High 5 Pie.

Four courses, four readings. I'll be shucking metaphorical oysters to accompany the real thing. The other courses include my wife, Martha Silano, who will read from her most recent poetry collections, Blue Positive and The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception; Kevin Craft, author of Solar Prominence and editor of Poetry Northwest; and Kate Lebo, poet and pie-maker extraordinaire.

Buy your ticket now for this tasty event.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bay Area Mini Tour

Dear Bay Area Foragers, Cooks, Outdoors Enthusiasts & Readers:

I'm happy to announce I'll be visiting your lovely habitat (and my former stomping ground) April 19 thru 21 to read at local book stores and give a slide lecture at the Sonoma Mycological Society. Come by and say hello. You can find me:

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Beginner Shellfish Foraging & Cooking Classes

In association with Bainbridge Island Parks & Rec, I'll be teaching three shellfish foraging and cooking classes this spring. Two classes will focus on steamer clams and oysters, while the third will be in pursuit of the legendary geoduck, world's largest burrowing clam.

  • May 1: Shellfish Foraging & Cooking. Bring your rubber boots and bucket. We'll learn how to dig for clams, shuck oysters, and cook our catch. Lunch will be littleneck clams steamed in white wine sauce at a nearby picnic area, with oysters on the half-shell as an appetizer.

  • May 18: Same as above.

  • June 15: Geoduck Dig. We'll learn the finer points of wrestling a giant geoduck clam from its lair, then repair to a nearby picnic area to make a delicious ceviche. Class size limited.

More information is available through Bainbridge Island Metro Park &  and Recreation DistrictTo register, please call 206-842-2306 x115.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Environmental Writers Workshop

Seattle's Burke Museum is sponsoring its third annual Environmental Writers Workshop on Saturday, April  23, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Award-winning authors and journalists Carol Kaesuk Yoon (Naming Nature) and Bruce Barcott (The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw) will join me in leading both class-based and field-based sessions in this all-day workshop.  Enrollment is open to 40. We'll divide into three groups so that each enrollee has a chance to work with all three instructors. Sessions will include panel talks, writing exercises, and class discussion. Lunch is provided. The cost is $100.

To register, please email or call (206) 543-5591.

Photo by Catherine Anstett

Monday, April 4, 2011

New Foraging Classes

By popular demand, I've added a new roster of foraging classes. These are in addition to the classes being offered by Bainbridge Island Parks & Rec. We'll meet in the Cascade foothills east of Seattle for a narrated 3-hour walk through a variety of landscapes. The class will focus on the identification of numerous edible plants and fungi, their life-cycles, and habitats. We'll also discuss proper harvesting techniques and tools; processing; cooking and recipes; and storage. The cost for these classes is $45 and includes a copy of my book. Maximum 12 per class.

  • Sunday, April 10, 10 a.m. FULL
  • Wednesday, April 27, 10 a.m. FULL
  • Tuesday, May 3, 10 a.m. FULL
To sign up, please email me at finspotcook AT gmail dot com. 

For those who missed my Stinging Nettles Class on Bainbridge Island, I'll be doing a second nettles class on April 13. Call 206-842-2306 for more information.

Additionally, I'm planning to offer a Nature Writing Workshop for a small group of writers and journalers this summer. If this interests you, let me know so I can add you to my mailing list.