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.