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.