Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Honest Food

I'm sure I don't have to introduce readers of this blog to Hank Shaw. Shaw is the proprietor of the Hunter Angler Gardener Cook blog, which has been nominated for numerous awards and garnered two IACP medals. He's also—full disclosure—a friend of mine. Now Shaw has a new book out which is taking the foraging community by storm. It's called Hunt, Gather, Cook, which is a pretty good description of how he lives his life. You might add Write in there too, since he's been a reporter for two decades and understands how to bring the intricacies of the forager's metier to the general public—no small feat.

On its face, Hunt, Gather, Cook is an introduction to wild foods with recipes, but it's also a clarion call. Hank's web address is, and that's what his main aim is: to show you how to eat well in way that stimulates mind and body, in an age dominated by watching rather than participating. Shaw answers an essential question—why bother?—at the very beginning of Chapter One. "First off, it's fun," he writes. "There's a certain 'wow' factor when you serve guests an elegant dish of, say, nettle pasta, or empanadas filled with cheese and lamb's-quarters, or dolmades made with mallow leaves instead of grape leaves." If you're happy pushing a grocery cart through fluorescent-lit aisles and choosing between the most colorful boxes of pre-fab food, then this book isn't for you (or maybe it's especially for you); finding your own food is about more than nourishment—it's about an activity that's good for the soul. There is satisfaction in growing a tomato that actually tastes like a tomato; in digging a clam and eating it on the same beach; in stacking your freezer with venison from a deer that died so that you can live.

Growing, foraging, or hunting your own food is a reminder that, no matter what the cynics say, you are still a part of the natural world and the food chain. At one time, these pursuits constituted humanity's main job. Now we have other work to occupy us (like trying to monetize web sites), but food finding is still a basic need that satisfies an ancient desire.

Enough proselytizing. So what's in the book?

It's divided into three main sections: foraging plants, nuts, and berries; fishing and shellfish; and hunting. In the plant section Shaw covers stalwarts such as stinging nettles and dandelions but also more intensive aspects of foraging such as harvesting and processing acorns, not to mention fringe-like pursuits such as brewing madrone bark tea. In the fishing section Shaw shows his stripes as a former commercial clammer ("The sea is one of God's great cathedrals, and it is the one that most stirs me within," he writes in the chapter head). Entire books have been written just about fly-fishing with sub-surface flies, so a few chapters devoted to the sea can only be a starting point, but even so there is good advice here for beginners, for instance on deep sea fishing: "Ocean fishing is one of the few areas where being a do-it-yourselfer isn't always the best idea." Charter a boat, he recommends. There are chapters on crabs, panfish, and even "misfits" such as eels, blowfish, and oyster toads, whatever those are (Shaw fries them).

The last section, on hunting, perhaps best encapsulates Shaw's notions of honest food. He came to hunting late in life, though he's learned enough to stock his freezer mostly with game meats and he's lost his taste for store-bought beef. This is also the section in which Shaw feels a need to explain himself, because, let's face it, the world is full of people opposed to hunting. "I've learned more about how and why nature does what she does in a morning spent hunting in the marsh or forest than most could in a year," he writes. This section is aimed squarely at that emerging demographic of urban weekend warrior thinking about purchasing his or her first hunting rifle. Shaw covers the basics on small mammals, large mammals, upland game-birds, and waterfowl. There is also a chapter on wild boar and charcuterie.

Hunt, Gather, Cook is not so much a field guide as it is a primer to whet the would-be forager's appetite. Those looking for color photos and point-by-point identification are advised to look elsewhere (and it should be mentioned that there is no such thing as a single reference guide to foraging in North America; even regional guides cannot be entirely comprehensive, to the dismay of some book buyers who expect all this information between two covers). Instead, Shaw's book provides the raison-d'ĂȘtre to go out and get your own food as well as a healthy dose of inspiration in the form of anecdotes and asides. The recipes are a diverse mixture of down home, far-flung, and cheffy. The overall effect is that of a friendly mentor taking you by the hand to reveal the hidden splendors of nature's pantry.

Shaw will be in Seattle to promote Hunt, Gather, Cook for the next few days, with an action-packed itinerary of dinners, talks, and other events. You can read more about his book tour here.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Geoduck Crudo with Wild Wood Sorrel

By now you know what a geoduck is. But what's a crudo? Besides being a hip culinary term that seems to be increasingly fashionable on both coasts, crudo means raw in Italian and is used to describe a raw fish dish that usually incorporates olive oil, sea salt, and some sort of citrus or vinegar.

For shellfish enthusiasts, a crudo is another way to enjoy the raw neck meat of a geoduck clam. In past posts I've written about Geoduck Sashimi and Geoduck Ceviche. Now add this crudo to the repertoire. I boosted the basic recipe with wild wood sorrel (Oxalis oregona) for an extra tart and lemony edge. You can also use sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosa) to the same effect. The two plants are unrelated, but each contains oxalic acid, the compound responsible for the tartness.

1/4 cup loosely packed wood sorrel, stemmed
1/4 cup olive oil
sea salt
Shichimi Togarashi

1. Blend the wood sorrel, olive oil, and sea salt in a food processor until the wood sorrel is pulpy. Using a baking spatula, remove mixture and press oil through a wire mesh strainer or cheesecloth into a small dish or glass.

2. Slice geoduck neck as thinly as possible and arrange slices on a plate. Drizzle sorrel-infused oil generously over geoduck and garnish with a few shakes of Shichimi Togarashi and lime juice.

For a chunkier alternative, use a mortar and pestle to pulverize wood sorrel, olive oil, and sea salt. Spoon over geoduck.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Gray Morel

I read somewhere recently that North America is the center of morel diversity on the planet. This news shouldn't surprise hardcore morel hunters in the New World, who already know firsthand about morels yet to be described in the scientific literature, some of which have funny common names like "bananas" and "pickles." The pickle, for instance, is a type of burn morel found late in the season with a dark, greenish hue and thick, three-walled flesh. Pickles (also called "greenies") are so dense they resist drying efforts. Most recreational mushroom hunters have never seen a pickle but commercial harvesters in the Northwest are familiar with such oddities in the Morchella genus—as are a handful of chefs in the know.

Another morel that only received species status in 2008 is known to hunters in the Western U.S. and Canada as the gray morel, Morchella tomentosa (not to be confused with the Midwestern "gray" which is an immature yellow morel, Morchella esculenta). It's also a late-fruiting species that inhabits burned conifer forests, usually coming on the heels of the conica flush (Morchella conica is the Latin name preferred by commercial pickers for the most common species of burn morel, though this Old World name could be subject to change with future DNA testing). Unlike many species of morels, grays can be readily identified on sight. They have two main color types: gray and blonde (though some refer to intermediate browns as well); their caps are densely pitted; and their stems are darker and thicker than most other species. Grays also have tell-tale hairs, especially near the base of the stem when young, that are easily seen with a hand lens; hence their other common name: fuzzy foot morel.

The photo above shows typical grays (background), blonde grays (right foreground), and conicas (left foreground), all in the same frame. Many restaurateurs prefer the thin-walled conicas because they're lightweight and thus more morels can be plated per serving, at least visually. Besides, grays typically command a higher price in the marketplace. But chefs looking for the best quality morels are apt to swoon over the pricier yet meatier grays.

Last week I had the chance to introduce Daniel Klein of The Perennial Plate to his first gray morels. Daniel has hunted morels in his home state of Minnesota before, but he'd never seen anything like the lightning burn I took him to in the North Cascades. We backpacked in several miles and spent a late afternoon slogging up and down the steep, scorched sides of a remote drainage above 5,000 feet. Rocky taluses, logjams of downed timber, and ash-covered slopes conspired to trip us up in the bush, and the mosquitoes were hell.

Despite all this, Daniel was grinning. Now he understood what all the fuss was about with Western burn morels. "They're everywhere!" he said, incredulous. To be honest, I was a little disappointed. We were a week late—or maybe a week early. The conicas were drying out fast and the grays had only just begun.

Still, we found enough of both species to enjoy a big camp meal of Fettuccine with Morels and Herbs beside an alpine lake and take home a load for the dehydrator. The scenery was spectacular and we had that good feeling in our bodies of muscle exertion that always accompanies a vigorous trek into the wilderness. The only thing missing was a hip flask of Beam to pass around as the stars began to wink on after dusk.

I saved my nicest grays in the fridge for a special meal a few days later, cooking up a favorite surf 'n' turf stir-fry for friends old and new, Sichuan Fish-Fragrant Geoduck with Morels. Normally this dish showcases the clam, but gray morels are so hearty and flavorful they managed to stand up to the main ingredient. It was a feast fit for the king of morels.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Horsing Around: Clam and Corn Chowder

Have I mentioned I'm originally from New England? Thought so. This simple fact gives me license to bitch about the lack of a decent clam shack in Seattle. Make that the West Coast. Sure, we have oyster bars like Walrus and Carpenter, Frank's, and Elliott's Oyster House. But I'm talking about clam shacks, the sort of place where a dozen oysters on the half shell can commingle peacefully with a greasy basket of fried clams or a lobster...err...Dungeness crab roll. The sort of place with picnic tables, plastic tablecloths, and beer, lots of it.

I was talking about this problem with Seattle's house forager, Jeremy Faber, recently. Faber's a New Yorker so he knows about these things, too. Tried as we could, we couldn't come up with a single clam shack worthy of the name in the Puget Sound region. Despite an embarrassment of shellfish riches, clam shack culture just doesn't seem to exist here. Go east, though, and you won't have any trouble finding it in Rhode Island or Massachusetts or even New Jersey. The clam shack is a venerable Atlantic Coast tradition and I miss it.

So is the clam bake. When I lived on Martha's Vineyard we used to get a mess of clams, build a bonfire on the beach, and steam the clams right in the coals with seaweed and a bunch of other good stuff. Corn on the cob, f'rinstance.

I guess it's a summertime East Coast thing. And so is this bowl of soup, which is a virtual New England clam bake in a bowl. Except it uses horse clams. That's a West Coast thing. A big-ass clam for sure. To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of the horse clam (also called a gaper). It can trick a geoduck digger occasionally, and the meat isn't good for much other than chowder or fritters. But if you're making a chowder, you only need one or two good-sized horse clams to close the deal. Corn sweetens the deal, as does red bell pepper.

There are two species of horse clams commonly dug from Alaska to California, Tresus nuttallii and Tresus capax. You can distinguish a horse clam by its shell, which is almost diamond-shaped and doesn't completely close over the siphon, lending it the name gaper. Like geoducks, they're found in the lower tidal zone of muddy beaches; unlike geoducks, the tip of a horse clam's siphon isn't smooth and often has barnacles or bony plates attached (note the barnacle in the photo). Here in Washington I suspect many horse clams are sport harvested by accident while diggers are going after geoducks or butter clams. That's certainly the case with these bad boys, unearthed in a case of mistaken identity during a recent 'duck-a-thon.

Horse clams, as I said, are big-ass clams—and this is a kick-ass chowder. Go make some. But first dig some. If you serve it to your West Coast significant-other-partner-hyphen you might just get some. Oh, and if you know of a half-decent clam shack in the Northwest, leave a comment.

Clam and Corn Chowder

2 horse clams, cleaned and sliced (or 2 cups chopped clams)
2 cups corn (about 4 ears)
3 slices slab bacon, diced
1 onion
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced (reserve sliced green tops)
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
2 cups peeled and diced potatoes
2 cups stock (chicken or clam broth, or both)
2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream or half and half
salt and white pepper

1. Saute diced bacon in heavy-bottomed pot until rendered and nearly crispy. Add onions and scallions and saute until translucent. Add potatoes, corn, and red peppers and cook together several minutes. Add a knob of butter if necessary.

2. Add chicken stock. Simmer until potatoes soften.

3. At this point I like to give the immersion blender a quick workout to thicken and blend the chowder. I blend a quarter to a third of the chowder in the pot, leaving the rest chunky.

4. Stir in clams with their juice plus reserved sliced scallions. Add milk and cream. Simmer a few more minutes until clams thoroughly cooked. Adjust seasonings.

Serve with bread or oyster crackers.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Forager's Double Header


Clam Bake with Hank & Lang
Join author-foragers Hank Shaw and myself for a memorable day on the shellfish beds of Puget Sound. Bring a clam rake, not your pillow! We'll be digging limits of Manila clams and other bivalves to cook right on the beach.

Learn the finer points of shellfish habitat, identification, processing, and cuisine. You'll need a bucket, rubber boots, garden cultivator (either hand-held or long-handled is fine), shellfish license, and the beverage of your choice. Lunch will be a feast of clams, along with other goodies provided by the instructors. The cost is $75 and includes signed copies of each author's book, a $43 value by itself. Class meets Friday, July 29, at 10:30 a.m. in the South Sound, an hour and fifteen minutes from Seattle.

Space is limited. To sign up, please email me at finspotcook AT gmail dot com.

About the instructors:
A former line cook and political reporter, Hank Shaw runs the blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, twice nominated for a James Beard Award and winner of two awards for Best Blog by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast is his first book.

Langdon Cook is author of the book and blog Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager. He is a columnist for Seattle Magazine and a frequent speaker and lecturer on wild foods and the outdoors.