Saturday, February 25, 2012

Hunting in the New Millennium

Taking up arms in order to take down dinner is no easy feat in our modern world of mixed messages and changing demographics, particularly for those of us who didn’t inherit the culture of hunting at birth. 

Tovar Cerulli and Georgia Pellegrini give us hunting rookies hope. Both came to the hunt later in life, not as a rite of passage but through an adult choice. One was a vegan starved for protein; the other, a former chef who wanted to live closer to the bones she made into stock. Their experiences, told in The Mindful Carnivore and Girl Hunter, are instructive for a new generation of would-be hunters.

Cerulli stopped eating meat after dispatching one too many brook trout as a young man. In a land of such plenty, it seemed somehow immoral to take a life. His vegetarianism led to veganism and finally, years later, to a trip to the doctor, who advised him to start reintroducing animal protein for health reasons. "I had more energy, felt more alive," he writes of his change in diet. His philosophical qualms were not so easily assuaged, however, so he resolved to kill and butcher his own meat—humanely, and with deference to the environment. Fortunately for Cerulli, he had mentors to ease him on the path. Along the way he reminds us of the many ironies that attend contemporary discourse on hunting and meat-eating (for instance, deer are routinely killed to protect organic crops). Trying to live in harmony with our bodies and the natural world is harder than most people want to believe.

Pellegrini's journey is one that will resonate with foodies determined to know where their sustenance is sourced—and how. Killing your own, after all, is the ultimate expression of this desire. She gives up a plum job in the wilds of Wall Street to go to cooking school, and one day finds herself faced with the sort of predatory act that is consistent with her new line of work: slaughtering turkeys. "The experience awakened a dormant, primal part of me," she writes.

And so both Cerulli and Pellegrini embark on age-old transformations, learning what it means to be at the top of the food chain. Cerulli's journey is mostly set in the Vermont woods of his home, where he patiently learns how to kill and eat the big game with the biggest payoff for a hunter trying to live in harmony with nature: white-tailed deer. Pellegrini's journey is more episodic and includes far-flung hunting expeditions in pursuit of a variety of feathered and furred game and with a variety of mentors, a few of whom turn out to be less than savory. Both Cerulli and Pellegrini address head-on the popular image of the "redneck hunter," but Pellegrini has personal run-ins with this species, and even in more upscale environs she confronts sexism and menace. Conscientious hunters will bridle at some of the situations she unwittingly falls into while trying to gain experience. She endures more than a couple canned hunts, and at one point gets bamboozled by a poacher. Implicit is the danger that faces a woman in an arena largely governed by men.

The ethics of hunting is a recurring motif in both books (and for those who want to delve deeply into this tricky realm, Cerulli recommends books by Ted Kerasote). What do we make of the fancy Texas "hunting" ranch, for instance, where the game is all exotic and hardly prepared for anything resembling the doctrine of "fair chase"? Or notions of the Great White Hunter in Africa (Pellegrini reminds us that trophy hunting pays for much needed conservation in poorer countries)? Or, closer to home for most hunters, the wounded animal that escapes only to suffer a long, drawn-out death? This latter conundrum is one of the events that weighed on my own mind after a hunt in Arkansas.

The point is, this hunting thing ain’t easy. About the moment of ultimate truth, Cerulli writes:
Holding the deer’s torn-in-two heart in my hand, I knew that oblivion had come swiftly. It was the shot I had hoped for: no more than a few seconds of shock, no time for pain to take hold. It was easier than most other ways a deer’s life was likely to end: in cold and starvation, across a car’s front end, at the teeth of four-footed predators. Yet that swiftness did nothing to alter the raw fact. I had killed this graceful creature.
Beginner and experienced hunters alike will find much to admire in these soul-searching accounts of learning how to kill for meat. Even though the authors are after somewhat different game—Cerulli wants to provide for his table while, as the title of her book implies, Pellegrini wants to take a seat at a table that was until recently not even available to her gender—the heart of the matter is how to live and eat honestly.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Stinging Nettle Gnudi with Sage Butter & White Truffles

Stinging nettles are emerging right on schedule in Puget Sound. I've written reams in the past about my weed crush on nettles, so click on the link above if you want to learn more about their natural history and culinary applications.

Figuring the dastardly yet oh-so-tasty greens were bound to be up by now, I went for a walk this past weekend in a Seattle green space with my son to check on signs of life. Spring premonitions were everywhere: Indian plum leafing out, towhees trilling their cat-like songs, street corner sandwich boards advertising little league tryouts. Sure enough, stinging nettles—always one of the first splashes of chlorophyl on an otherwise drab, mid-winter floor—peeked out from the leaf litter like groundhogs nosing out of burrows on shadow patrol, some of them just barely tall enough for harvest.

Riley demonstrated one of his favorite skills learned at Wilderness Camp: he carefully picked a nettle leaf with his bare hand by pinching its hairless top and folded it over several times into a little package which he then popped into his mouth and ate. Look Dad, no sting! We went to a regular spot and harvested a grocery bag worth of tender young nettle tops.

This time Riley wasn't so lucky. He got stung on his calf, his youthful skin immediately turning red with little raised welts. Nearby he found a frond of licorice fern with visible spores underneath and rubbed it vigorously on the affected area. This noted folk remedy has never worked for me personally, but Riley insisted that the fern did the trick. I took a look and was surprised to see that the redness and welts were really gone. Next time we might harvest that licorice fern for food, too.

Nettle Gnocchi has been a go-to recipe in recent years, but until the other day I had never made...

Nettle Gnudi

Yep, naked—as in naked ravioli. Gnudi are basically ravioli fillings without their pasta clothing. You mix a bit of flour into the cheese filling and shape it into little balls or pillows. You can serve them boiled, but I like adding one more step and pan-frying the gnudi so that the rich, creamy inside is contrasted by the fried exterior. Finely chopped nettles (or spinach or herbs) add an extra dimension of flavor. It's up to you how much herbage to add. I didn't want my gnudi to be overpowered by the nettles, so I limited mine to a scant, loose cup; you could double that amount and end up with much greener, woodsier gnudi.

2 cups ricotta
3/4 cup grated parmesan
2 eggs
1 cup boiled and chopped nettles
1/2 cup flour, plus more for rolling
1/8 tsp nutmeg
salt and pepper
olive oil
fresh sage, chopped

1. Blanche stinging nettles in boiling water for a minute. Drain, shock with cold water, and squeeze out as much excess water as possible. Chop finely to fill a loose cup.

2. Drain ricotta and stir into large bowl with parmesan, eggs, chopped nettles, a dash of nutmeg, and seasoning. Slowly add flour. Mixture should be damp and tacky without sticking to hands. If a half cup of flour doesn't do the trick, keep adding a little more at a time until you can form a wet ball in your hand without it adhering.

3. Sprinkle work surface generously with flour. Take a snowball-sized handful of cheese mixture and roll in flour until thoroughly coated. Roll out into a snake with a half-inch to inch diameter depending on preference. Cut into pillows. Dredge the cut ends in flour and shape each pillow as desired. Set aside on floured plate.

4. Boil gnudi in batches in salted water. They're done when they float to the surface. Use a slotted spoon to remove from boiling water to a clean plate. Place cooked gnudi on wax paper on a cookie sheet. I like to boil a batch after each snowball's worth of filling is shaped. While that batch is boiling (it only takes a couple minutes), I move the previous boiled batch from plate to wax paper. Then I continue with another handful.

5. Pan fry gnudi in olive oil and butter with chopped sage leaves until nicely browned. Leftover boiled gnudi can be refrigerated.

Nettle Gnudi with Lamb Ragu, Carrot Puree & Sage Butter Crumbs

For a more involved dish I made a lamb shoulder ragu by browning diced lamb shoulder in olive oil with shallot, deglazing with a splash of white wine, and stirring in a teaspoon of tomato paste. This got served over the pan-fried gnudi along with a sauce of pureed stewed carrots and a sprinkling of sage butter crumbs.

Gnudi are easier to make than potato gnocchi, and the melt-in-your-mouth inside is a truly wonderful thing. Another reason to get yer weed on.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Celery Root Soup with Shaved White Truffles

I've been on a tuberous jag lately. It seems that each winter I adopt a different root vegetable for extra attention in the kitchen. Parsnips, beets, turnips, burdock, and yams have all had their due, among others, and let's not forget those tuber-like fungi, truffles. This year the winner is the homely looking celery root. Seems I'm not alone. Celery root, or celeriac, is more prevalent on restaurant menus than ever, usually shaved fresh in salads, roasted with a root medley, or in soup.

Celery root, it's true, is not much for the eyes. It looks a little like some intergalactic critter from the cantina scene in Star Wars, with tentacles and tendrils snaking around. But once you slice off the exterior you're left with a pearly white block of goodness that takes on a pleasing silky character when cooked, not to mention a deep earthy flavor that's reminiscent of a more rough-hewn conventional stalk of celery on steroids. My friend Brad makes cream of chanterelle soup with celery root; the root thickens and softens the soup so much that no actual cream is required.

Celery root marries nicely with other roots and gourds. You'll often see it paired in soup with parsnip or butternut squash. Recently I combined it with leftover roasted acorn squash along with yellow curry powder, fresh ginger, and garam masala, then served it with sour cream and cilantro. My favorite way to use celery root is solo. A celery root soup is about the easiest soup you can make and the payoff is well beyond the ease of preparation. The flavor is jaunty and rich enough to stand up to a healthy shaving of truffles, which happens to be a classic combo.

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped
2 - 3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large celery root, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch cubes
salt and white pepper, to taste
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
2 cups water
white truffles, shaved at table (optional)

Saute onion in butter and olive oil over medium heat until softened. Add garlic and cook another minute or two before adding celery root. Cook together, stirring occasionally, a few minutes. Season with salt and white pepper. Add stock and water. Simmer until celery root is soft and ready for blending, at least half an hour. Use immersion blender or food processor to blend thoroughly. Soup should be velvety smooth. Serve hot with shaved truffles on top if you got 'em.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Truffle Nirvana

The woods were alive with the sounds of trufflers. Dozens of humans and canines barked and yipped and hollered their triumphs and failures through a gloomy grove of 25-year-old Douglas-firs. They ran to and fro, scratching in the dirt with paws and garden cultivators. Most were amateurs, brought together by the 7th annual Oregon Truffle Festival. Longtime truffle researcher Dan Luoma of Oregon State was on hand to offer guidance. Just about everyone found winter white truffles (Tuber oregonense), though the season's odd weather patterns meant that most of the truffles were still small and less than perfectly ripe.

Later, at a luncheon at Willamette Valley Vineyards, I ate one of the best truffle dishes I've ever had: a Pinot Noir-braised pork belly with white truffle-onion jam, dried cherries, and a frisee with raspberry-black truffle vinaigrette (see below). It was a perfectly balanced blend of flavors and textures that was expertly knitted together by the truffle jam. This was proof that an Oregon truffle experience could be a culinary epiphany rather than a shrug.

Eating our home-grown truffles is not always so revelatory. Truffles get raked up too young, sold to retailers who don't know any better, and then passed on to customers who have no benchmark for comparison.

Fortunately this is not the case with the Oregon Truffle Festival, which aims to educate as well as nourish. The talks and lectures from truffle experts the world over were illuminating, and though not every single dish served over the course of eight different multi-course meals throughout the weekend was a resounding success, most of the dishes used generous amounts of ripe truffles in toothsome ways that showed off the fungi's singular qualities.

The Oregon Truffle Festival is held at the end of January each year in Eugene, Oregon, in the southern Willamette Valley. The valley is ground zero for our native edible truffles, though they can be found from the Fraser River Valley in British Columbia south to Northern California, in low elevation coastal Douglas-fir forests. This contrasts with European truffles, which are generally found in hardwoods.

Photo: Jen Reyneri
During our bus ride to the truffle patch, Luoma, a forest ecologist, explained that the Willamette Valley offers the best climatic conditions for our native truffles (not too hot in summer, not too cold in winter) and that truffles in general seem to prefer habitats near human activity, in particular cleared agricultural fields replanted with orchards. Truffles have long been associated with wine country, and this association is true for the vineyards of Willamette Valley, many of which have nearby Christmas tree farms or planted groves of Douglas-fir for timber or water retention.

In addition to the guided forays and lectures, the festival included dog-training workshops, cooking classes, and a grower's forum for the brave cultivation set.

Saturday night's Grand Truffle Dinner, the coup de grace, was as over the top as promised. I arrived, along with 300 other guests, at a hotel ballroom suffused with the aroma of Oregon black truffles (Leucangium carthusianum). Three-hundred plates covered three long prep tables as the first course made its debut, each plate decorated with a square of Celery Root & Black Truffle Panna Cotta topped with Dungeness Crab Salad & Parisian Pears. The kitchen staff, armed with mandolines, roamed up and down the line, shaving away. The scent of black truffles hung in the air like a heavy fog. Indeed, it was nearly disorienting.

My favorite dish of the night was probably the second course, White Truffle Scented Red & White Quinoa in a Creamy Risotto Style with Riesling Poached Hen's Egg, Shaved Coppa, Wild Winter Herbs, Lemon Thyme Emulsion & Shaved White Truffles. My favorite dessert of the weekend was a chorus of truffled sweets served earlier that day at Willamette Valley Vineyards: White Truffle Panna Cotta, White Truffle Raspberry Mousse, White Truffle Infused Tapioca, and White Truffle Brittle.

If you're a lover of truffles who can't afford a trip to Italy (and who can these days?) or simply curious, I highly recommend the Oregon Truffle Festival. Though not exactly inexpensive, the festival delivers plenty of value for the cost, and as far as I could tell there was no scrimping on the truffles. Festival founders Charles Lefevre and Leslie Scott run an action-packed weekend and the attendees are fun people who enjoy a good time. I made a lot of new friends at the festival, which is reason enough to spend a weekend in the beautiful and bounteous Willamette Valley.