Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dept. of Horn-blowing

Here at FOTL headquarters we're pleased to announce a couple profile-raising media events of late. First, check out the September issue of Sunset magazine: "Digging for Dinner," page 80. The eight-page spread will tell you all you need to know to embark on a West Coast clamming adventure.

Second, take a peek at Daniel Klein's latest webisode (#68) of Perrenial Plate, featuring seaside foragers Hank Shaw and yours truly, oyster farmer John Adams, and Herbfarm chef Chris Weber. Here's what you don't see in the video. Earlier in the morning John, Daniel, and I dug for a truly stupendous geoduck near the low tide line only to be thwarted by its depth, the seriously vacuum-sealed nature of its lair, and the inexorable force of the rising tide. This was a bummer because it was a BIG clam and I think we all had visions of grandeur before the harsh reality of a failed dig set in. So we regrouped farther up the beach and ran into a whole new host of problems, including a nasty substrate of broken oyster shells and then the coup de grace captured on film... Really, I thought the miserable sound of crunching wood—a broken shovel—was the death knell. Tune in to find out what happens.

The Perennial Plate Episode 68: A Tale of Three Seasides from Daniel Klein on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Red Huckleberries with Chef Donald Link

New Orleans chef Donald Link (Herbsaint, Cochon) came to town last month to see what was happening in the Seattle food scene and film a few segments for his webcast Taste of Place on the Delish Channel. The chef wanted to spend a day foraging while he was here. Mid-July is actually an in-between time for the Northwest forager. Many of the spring greens have gone to seed and most berries are not yet ripe.

There is one berry, though, that begins to ripen in early July, the first of the many species of huckleberry native to the Pacific Northwest: Vaccinium parvifolium, the red huckleberry. With this in mind, I brought Donald to the huckleberry patch to forage some berries for the dinner he would cook later that week at Kurtwood Farms.

There are 13 varieties of huckleberry in Washington State. All are edible, and I've never found one that wasn't delicious. Some are tart, some are sweet. Some, like the red huckleberry, are early fruiters, while others, like the evergreen huckleberry, fruit late into fall. This is why it's good to know many different species of huckleberry: you can find them in different habitats at different times of year. Red huckleberries are found in low-elevation mixed forests, most commonly on the West Coast from California to Alaska, though they can be found as far east as Idaho.

Picking huckleberries is an exercise in carpal tunnel syndrome but it's worth remembering that a little can go a long way, especially with red hucks. They have a beautiful, almost unworldly red hue, and a very distinctive taste. Donald would make expert use of these two qualities—the color and flavor—by adding them sparingly to an appetizer and a dessert.

By the time I arrived at Kurtwood Farms on Vashon Island, Donald had already put in a full day harvesting fresh vegetables, breaking down a pig, and sampling cheeses with owner (and author) Kurt Timmermeister. He even got to play with a geoduck. Donald used the red hucks to top a crostini of melted camembert (click here for video recipe) and with Kurt's raspberries in an egg custard.

Wiping the sweat from his brow, he looked at the camera and said, "Cooking is my vacation." I believed him.

To watch the entire 6-minute webisode of Chef Donald Link's visit to Seattle, click here.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Telluride ShroomFest 31

The mushroom people came out in full force this weekend in Telluride, Colorado, to celebrate fungal magic in its many-splendored glory. This was my first trip to ShroomFest, now in its thirty-first year and one of the biggest mushroom gatherings in the country. As I've said before, the mushroom people, with their appreciation of the outdoors and nature, fondness for good food and wine, and generally impish sense of humor, are my kind of people.

But while many mushroom-related fairs and exhibits try to downplay the more eccentric sideshows in mushroom culture, in Telluride the weirdness was on full display. Noted mycologists gave talks with titles such as "Magic Mushrooms, The Merry Pranksters and Medicinal Mushrooms for the Soul"; "Mushrooms, Monks & Mystical Experiences"; and "Hallucinogenic Mushrooms of North America." During his closing remarks for Saturday night's keynote lecture, Paul Stamets reminded the audience of the importance of freedom of thought, noting that mushroom-induced mind expansion has the potential to promote imagination and creativity.

In many ways this openness about the psychoactive properties of mushrooms is refreshing. Psilocybin mushrooms in particular have been used by human beings for centuries for ritualistic, shamanistic, and religious purposes, and just because our current government has decided to make these natural substances Class 1 controlled drugs doesn't change our perpetual desire to seek altered perspectives, larger truths, and good old fashioned intoxication.

Maybe this is why certain academics aren't afraid to don silly hats and wave their freak flags high. It would be impossible to act more clownish than hypocritical public officials who endeavor to contain humanity's ongoing search for higher consciousness.

Mycological luminaries in town for the fun included the aforementioned Stamets, whose work in applied mycology is helping to solve world problems from oil spills to hunger; Gary Lincoff, an original founder of the festival and author of the Audubon Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America; Michael Beug, retired professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and den leader of sorts for his mentoring of leading mycologists and myconauts through the years; and Larry Evans of Know Your Mushrooms fame.

Telluride is an appropriate venue. Known for its dramatic scenery and a summer schedule choked with festivals, so much so that the locals look to the Nothing Festival for a breather, this old mining village turned ski resort has a history of attracting seekers, nonconformists, and iconoclasts. Did I mention the scenery? While the talks and slideshows at ShroomFest 31 had me circling my schedule with ballpoint ink until it ripped from the abuse, the pull of the San Juans was strong. On Saturday the mountains lured me away from the lecture hall for a foray up to Dunton Meadows.

Truth be told, my expectations weren't high. Monsoons came early to southern Colorado this summer—and then left. August has been dry. The mushrooms responded with an initial flush a few weeks ago that petered out with the lack of more recent rain. On Saturday's foray I followed a long convoy led by Larry Evans to the far side of Lizard Head Pass, which boasts heart-stopping views of some of the most beautiful vistas in the Rockies. Here, where high meadows mingled with seams of spruce and fir, we worked hard to find a few lingering king boletes not yet infested with worms and the season's first chanterelles, still small yet firm and aromatic.

Joined by my old friends Cowboy and Betty, we wandered the meadows and forests. Our boys, sharp-eyed and close to the ground, uncovered hidden stashes of mushrooms despite the challenging conditions. The joyful tune of "I've got one!" rang out through the woods as they raced from tree to tree. When the thunder and lightning started, as it inevitably does on summer afternoons in the Rockies, we packed it in and drove back down the mountain, coming across one poor soul, shirtless and wild-eyed, who had spent most of the day lost in the territory. "Call Search and Rescue and tell them I'm found," he said sheepishly.

Back in town the annual parade kicked off, rallying the mushroom people for a counter culturally-tinged procession down main street.

Young and old strutted their fungal stuff, some holding signs in case you didn't know where they stood on the issues.

At one point the pace car, painted a jaunty Amanita red and white, broke down. No worries. The mushroom people happily pushed it through the streets.

It was hard, at least for me, to not see this limping, shroomified jalopy as a metaphor. The mushroom people are intrigued by a little-known kingdom that's barely on the radar of the average citizen. Just the same, this kingdom may be more crucial to human existence than we realize, and a dedicated band of adherents will continue to plumb its mysteries.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Resident Silvers

Over the years I've caught most of my salmon while standing either in a river or on a beach—I'm just too much of a cheapskate to hire a charter. Last week, though, with Hank and Holly in town, I took a rare opportunity to fish for salmon while standing on a boat. Here's the funny thing: I was standing on a boat within sight of a public beach where I sometimes stand with rod in hand for free.

But don't get me wrong: the action was all offshore. The boat was a charter out of Shilshole Marina in Seattle operated by Captain Nick Kester of All Star Fishing Charters and the beach was Golden Gardens. Though I didn't actually get a chance to hoist a rod myself, I watched my boy reel in the first of two silver salmon, which was even better.

Just a week before, Riley was building sand castles with his sister a few hundred yards to the east from where we were now trolling flashers and cut-plugged herring. Most of the year the parking lot at Golden Gardens is near empty, but on sun-splashed summer days the park's sandy waterfront overflows with Seattlites determined to experience the novelty of a day at the beach. I guess I was a little surprised to find out that more than a few salmon charters work the rips right off that beach, too.

The upside of a charter is that your chances of catching fish are about as good as they get; the downside is that you'll be catching those fish with the aid of down-riggers, which means you're mostly reeling. At first Riley was baffled by this unfamiliar setup. After the first rod popped and he was called to duty, he saw the plus side. It's a fact that a guided charter using down-riggers and fishfinders takes a lot of guesswork out of fishing—and it's also a fact that the live-wire excitement of having a salmon on the line increases exponentially on most days with such advantages.

Resident silvers (aka coho, Oncorhynchus kisutch) are fish that never leave Puget Sound. They hatch in local rivers, rear in the Sound, and return to those same rivers to spawn. While in the Sound they dine on a diet of amphipods and small bait fish, rarely attaining the size of silvers that leave the Sound altogether for the wilderness of the North Pacific. Those silvers, sometimes called "ocean hooknoses," can be much larger, with the males displaying deeply kyped jaws.

A devoted band of saltwater fly-fishermen pesters the resident silvers for most of the year. Just about any point of land sticking into the Sound can be a possible fly-fishing spot when a combination of tides and currents brings the feeding fish close to shore. The Tacoma Narrows in particular, with its fast-moving currents, is a place where anglers gather to cast from the beach. In spring the resident silvers are trout-sized; as the summer wears on they put on weight and look more like salmon fit for a barbecue, albeit on the small side; by early fall the fish are in a feeding frenzy, a last-ditch effort to fatten up before the spawn. This is when most beach fishermen seek them out. By then the resident silvers are about as big as they'll get, usually in the four or five-pound range, and the ocean silvers are just arriving, giving the angler a shot at a 12-pounder.

To be honest, fishing for resident silvers with all the advantages of boat, down-rigger, and bait felt a little dirty. In retrospect we probably should have asked the captain to motor a dozen extra miles out to the chinook grounds, where the fish and tackle are more suitably matched. But like a good captain, his first concern was getting his clients—which numbered two Californians prohibited by law in their own state from fishing depleted stocks of silvers—into fish.

That night we ate grilled salmon over risotto in nose-to-tail fashion. Meat from the salmon cheeks went into the risotto, as did the roe. The carcasses made a wonderful broth, some of which we used for the risotto while the rest went into the freezer. Hank had some very nice saffron on hand to tart up the risotto along with white wine, Walla Walla sweet onion, English shelling peas, and lemon zest. A fitting feast after a good afternoon on the water.

Photo at top and second from top by Holly Heyser.