Monday, May 28, 2012

Miner's Lettuce Smoothie

It's not too late to gather miner's lettuce. The lowland varieties are flowering now, which isn't a problem in terms of taste, though as the season progresses they'll get increasingly pocked and leggy. Turn your attention to the mountains, where higher elevation varieties are just coming on line.

While gathering vanilla leaf the other day at around 3,000 feet on the far side of White Pass, I found good quantities of what I assume is Siberian miner's lettuce (Claytonia sibirica). It certainly looks like Siberian, though a commercial forager I know refers to it as alpine miner's lettuce. This is an especially succulent variety, with bright red coloration near the base of the stem and thick, crunchy leaves. I found it growing in the flood plain of Indian Creek, right out of the gravel, where it could be easily hoisted by hand and snipped off at the base, unlike woodland varieties which are frequently lassoed up with other plant life.

After surfing around the web in search of new recipes to make with miner's lettuce, I came across a site devoted to raw foods, with several smoothie recipes featuring wild ingredients. My daughter Ruby is a fan of smoothies, often putting a big glass of the stuff away before school in the morning. Smoothies are both a great way to deal with leftover fruits and yogurt, and a way for parents to disguise nutritious foods that might otherwise get snubbed. Into the blender went some vitamin c-packed miner's lettuce, in case scurvy was going around at school.

1 cup miner’s lettuce
1/2 ripe pear
1/2 ripe banana
1/2 cup blueberries
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup milk
Yields 1 tall smoothie

This smoothie retains a bit of the wild green bite that you'd expect from the miner's lettuce, but the fruits—the banana in particular—tone it down so that the flavor is fresh, sweet, and probably unlike anything you've tasted before. Happy Memorial Day everyone!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Vanilla Leaf Tea

If you have spent even a little time wandering lower and mid-elevation trails in the Pacific Northwest, you've seen vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla), a common native plant that can grow in lush, luxuriant carpets of jaunty green on the forest floor.

Now is the time to collect some. As snow melts in the mountains, the woods awaken from their winter slumbers and begin to stir with energized green shoots of all kinds. Sometimes the forest floor looks like it has a bad case of bed-head after the snowmelt, all matted and olive drab. But fast-growing greenery like vanilla leaf brings a sense of alert vitality back to the woods, a vitality that I try to incorporate myself this time of year.

When you find a good dense patch, it doesn't take long to collect enough for a year's supply of tea. Just grab the young leaves in bunches and snip the stalks with kitchen shears. When you get home, you can trim the rest of the stem if you prefer. The other day I filled a couple garbage bags, most of it for Jeremy Faber over at Foraged and Found Edibles. He uses the vanilla leaf in several wild tea mixes that he sells at Seattle farmers markets. Jeremy had a good laugh when I told him I averaged about 45 minutes to an hour per bag; he picks the stuff about three times as fast. And I must have cut myself in at least three places with the scissors. Good thing I don't usually forage for pay!

Native Americans used vanilla leaf as an insect repellent and to perfume their homes. Once in the dehydrator, the plant's common name rings true: the room fills with the slightly sweet and calming aroma of vanilla. As a tea, it has the same affect. Vanilla leaf tea is not like stinging nettle tea—it doesn't announce itself loudly at the door as a nutrient-laden heal-all with punch. It's more laid back, with a reserved herbally essence that's mellowed by the hint of vanilla. Really, it's a wonderfully soothing tea, like a chamomile. You can adjust the flavor to suit your own taste by mixing in other wild ingredients such as rose hips.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sustainable Eats May Challenge

Over at Sustainable Eats, where you can find the excellent new guide The Urban Farm Handbook, with advice and helpful tips on everything from backyard chickens to container gardens, May has been officially deemed the Foraging Challenge Month. Take the challenge to learn some useful new skills and give yourself a chance to win prizes.

Here's the deal. Make a meal in which all the main ingredients are wild and/or foraged. It's that simple. Then, at the end of the month, leave a comment on the Sustainable Eats blog about your experience to be included in a prize drawing. Even better, include a link to your own blog post about a wild and foraged meal.

Prizes include a copy of my book, Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager; Jennifer Hahn's book, Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine; and Hank Shaw's book, Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. Speaking of Hank, last week over at the Hunter Angler Gardener Cook blog, he offered his own foraging challenge: go find morels.

If you're new to foraging or always wanted to give it a try, this is a good month to get your feet wet. Across the continent, May is bursting with wild greens, spring mushrooms, and, depending on where you live, fish and shellfish. In my neck of the woods, we have the return of iconic runs of spring run chinook, known as springers, considered the tastiest of all salmon because of their high fat reserves. In addition, the Alaska salmon fisheries kick into gear with Copper River sockeye and chinook. May also marks the last razor clam dig of the winter/spring season in Washington as well as the first spot prawn opener. There's usually a tide low enough to dig for the wily geoduck. In the woods, meadows, and city lots, edible weeds are popping up everywhere, not to mention native greens such as fiddleheads and miner's lettuce. And let's not forget those wild spring delicacies, morels!

For my own challenge meal, I joined 14 high school students and two teachers last week to cook a wild feast after several days of foraging around Seattle and beyond. This is the second year I've been invited by the Bush School in Seattle to teach a week-long "experiential" class. Over the course of the week we visited a state forest to forage for native greens, picked weeds in an urban park, went clamming in South Puget Sound, and even hopped over the mountains to find a couple pounds of morels just as the mushroom season was kicking into gear.

On the last day we cooked up our harvest. Or rather, the kids processed and cooked the feast. Our meal is testimony to the varied and delicious menu that can be put together with a little knowledge of one's own habitat and some healthy tramping around in the outdoors. On our menu:

Yours need not be so extensive. Just make sure the main ingredients on the plate are wild and/or foraged. Things to think about after you harvest (or purchase), cook, and eat your wild meal: How did it taste? Anything different? Was it worth your time and effort—and if so, why? Take the Foraging Challenge!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Quick Asian Pickled Fiddleheads

Here on the West Coast, we pamper our ladies. Fie on you East Coasters with your easy-to-please ostriches! Alas, it is true: lady fern fiddleheads, should we not treat them with the utmost care and respect, can leave a bitter taste in the mouth, their delicate beauty notwithstanding.

Bitterness. It's a state of mind, you say. Bitter is as bitter does. Easy for an ostrich eater to say. The fact is, us West Coasters have no choice but to pamper. It's part of the contract. Otherwise we're sure to be disappointed. It happens in restaurants all the time. "They looked so cool on the plate...I thought they'd taste better."

The bitterness in ladies varies significantly from patch to patch, for reasons that I can't begin to understand. If you find a patch of lady fern fiddleheads that's less bitter than others, hold tight to that patch!

The next best thing is to use them accordingly. Like with this very simple pickling recipe. It's a "quick pickle" deal. I've used other pickling recipes in the past for fiddleheads, but this is my new favorite for its ease, texture (i.e. crunch), and a perfect balance between salt and sweet. Perhaps more importantly, any bitterness is miraculously vaporized in the marriage of flavors.  One of the benefits of the quick pickle method is that the fiddleheads aren't subjected to a withering hot water bath. The obvious downside is that you can't keep them on hand for months at a time, at least I don't think you can. So far I haven't been able to keep any on hand for more than a couple days.

2 packed cups fiddleheads, cleaned
1 cup rice vinegar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
2 half-pint jars

A note on cleaning fiddleheads: It's imperative that you remove as much of the brown, hairy, and bitter-tasting sheath that adorns the fiddlehead as possible. The easiest way to do this is to first run the fiddleheads under a strong tap, then immerse in a bowl of water and work them with your fingers, emptying and filling the bowl periodically to discard the residue. Finally, clean each fiddlehead individually between thumb and forefinger for a few seconds. The cleaner the better. Neatly trim the ends afterward.

1. In a pot of salted water, parboil cleaned fiddleheads for 1 minute. Drain and shock in cold water before draining again and removing to paper towels.

2. Mix pickling brine of rice vinegar, salt, and sugar.

3. Pack 2 half-pint jars with fiddleheads and cover with pickling brine. Refrigerate overnight.