Monday, June 25, 2012

Porcini Bap

In 1998 I spent six months working in the UK. Martha and I lived in a flat in the dingy London suburb Slough (rhymes with cow) made famous by The Office (and, before that, by the poet laureate John Betjeman). Friends pitied us for our diet of English food, imagining slabs of gray, overcooked meat, soggy fish 'n' chips, and vegetables boiled into limp submission.

But those in the know, such as my colleague Rebecca (now jam goddess at Deluxe), told us not to worry, that the UK was in the midst of a major gastronomic overhaul. She was right. We arrived to find food-crazed Brits long before Top Chef landed on American soil.

We watched—along with everyone else—TV episodes of Delia Cooks, Ready Steady Cook, Two Fat Ladies, Nigel Slater, and the beautiful, tragic Nigella Lawson. We ate extraordinary Indian food (acknowledged as the national cuisine) on trips to London, and on Sundays I would ride my bike through the countryside, pulling over for a pint every so often and eventually stopping to sup on afternoon roast before wobbling back home.

We amassed a collection of contemporary English cookbooks. One of our favorites was Nigel Slater's Real Food, the title appropriated long before Michael Pollan and the New World locavore movement. Real food meant both English standards (e.g. Toad in the Hole) as well as the many ethnic influences bubbling up across the country, all of it made with fresh ingredients and updated preparations. Twice we blew up our little English oven while mistakenly cooking one of our mainstays, Nigel's 40 Garlic Chicken, on gas 9.

One of our favorite quick meals was called a bap. It was a hot vegetarian sandwich recipe that Nigel attributes to Nigella. I confess that I still don't know exactly what a bap is (a type of bread?), but I like the sound of it. Nigel roasts the caps of large field mushrooms with garlic butter and parsley. This simple sandwich is excellent—and with a haul of spring porcini mushrooms foraged the other day here in the USA, I decided I'd give it a new spin.

Spring kings, as they're sometimes known, are fruiting in my patches right now. I've written about the "little pigs" before. You can read more about them here, here, and here. They're fun to forage and a joy to cook.

To make the sandwich, pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Chop together some garlic and parsley and mix into a large dollop of softened butter with a generous sprinkling of salt. Slather each mushroom cap with the garlic butter and roast for about 20 minutes. When the mushrooms are cooked and starting to brown a little at the edges, you can melt some cheese such as provolone or mozzarella as a finishing touch.

Choose good bread. I picked up a ciabatta from the Columbia City Bakery. When it's time to assemble the sandwich, make sure you rub the cut ends of the bread in the pan juices.

You want to use large porcini buttons if possible, buttons with caps that haven't fully opened yet. Placed upside-down on a roasting pan, the concave caps will hold the garlic butter. Nigel says a good bap should drip down your hands and arms when you eat it. I concur.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Thick and Creamy New England Clam Chowder

I get asked about chowders a lot, especially by transplanted East Coasters, many of whom fondly remember a thick and creamy boardwalk-style clam chowder from their youths, when they went down to the shore on family vacations.

Here on the West Coast, razor clams and butter clams—large, meaty, and loaded with bivalve flavor—are the chowder clams of choice (though geoduck makes a good chowder, as does the horse clam).

But smaller hardshelled clams like the native littleneck and non-native manila can be used for chowder, too. The manila in particular is a bread-and-butter species around Puget Sound and can be easily collected on some beaches virtually every day of the year. Most of the time I steam my manilas and eat them out of the shell, as in Pasta alle Vongole, Black Bean Clams, Thai Red Curry Clams, Clams with Herbed Wine Sauce, and so on. Sometimes, though, the New Englander in me demands a chowder.

I usually turn to my grandmother Mimi's chowder recipe, which you can find in Fat of the Land. This was a recipe used mainly for flaky, white fish, notably cod, which we ate every summer at their home on Cape Cod. It uses salt pork, and it's relatively thin. I also understand the appeal of the sort of thick and creamy chowders that we've all had at clam shacks one time or another. The recipe below is one of those chowders, based on a recipe developed by the local Seattle fish 'n' chips house, Ivar's. It's a piscatarian chowder, which is to say it doesn't rely on bacon or salt pork. A couple limits of manilas will make this chowder.

1 cup white wine
3 - 4 cloves garlic, smashed
several sprigs parsley
1 1/2 cups clam meat
2 - 3 cups clam broth
2 cups peeled and diced potatoes
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced celery
3/4 cup butter
3/4 cup flour
4 cups half and half, warmed
salt and pepper
dash red pepper flakes

1. Steam 80 manila clams in wine, garlic, and parsley. When clams have opened, strain broth through fine mesh sieve and save; you should have at least 2 cups. Remove meat from shells and roughly chop; you should have between 1 - 2 cups.

2. In a medium saucepan, simmer onions, celery, and potato in clam broth until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed pot, melt butter over medium heat. Slowly add flour, whisking, to make a roux. When roux is golden, slowly pour in warmed half and half while continuing to whisk. Add clam broth and vegetables and continue to stir. If chowder is still too thick, add more warm milk or half and half (or warm water, chicken stock, or clam juice).

4. Season with salt, black pepper, and red pepper. Garnish with oyster crackers. Wear your lobster bib.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Coral Mushroom Tempura

They look like something from the deep, or even outer space. Coral mushrooms, also called deer antlers or doghair, are a family (Clavariaceae) of multi-colored fungi that resemble the sort of undersea coral you might find while snorkeling in warm equatorial waters. There are many species across North America, and they can grow quite large.

I've been reluctant to post about coral mushrooms for a couple reasons. First, they're difficult to identify to the species level. And second, as edibles, they have a mixed track record. Some sources suggest that there are no deadly poisonous corals; others say that some corals can cause gastrointestinal distress and that even the choice varieties can have a laxative effect. One species, Ramaria formosa, also known as the beautiful clavaria for its yellow and pink coloration, is thought to be mildly poisonous. But careful foragers can rely on a few rules of thumb when gathering coral: avoid species with a gelatinous base; that bruise brown when handling; that taste bitter.

In my region the popular edible varieties tend to be spring mushrooms, in particular the pink-tipped coral Ramaria botrytis. Another is the yellow coral, both Ramaria rasilispora and Ramaria magnipes. These are large, meaty mushrooms with a stout, fleshy base (especially R. magnipes, which is also called bigfoot). Both yellow and pink corals begin to emerge after morels and in advance of the spring porcini flush in the Pacific Northwest, and given good conditions they'll continue to fruit throughout the summer and into fall in some locales. Fortunately, these are the dominant species where I pick spring porcini, and I'll find the mushrooms cohabiting, but harvesters should learn the particulars of their own patches.

Look for corals that have just emerged from the duff and leaf litter. As they grow, the tips elongate and continue to trap all manner of forest debris in their clutches, making them a chore to clean. I look for tightly clustered corals that resemble cauliflower more than weird sea creatures.

I picked some corals the other day while scouting spring porcini. When I got them home I decided to try to keep their cool looking profiles intact by slicing up for tempura. The porcini went into the mix as well, along with other assorted veggies and shrimp. Use your favorite tempura recipe; I like this one.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Lamb Ragu with Morels & Fava Beans

It's a tough year for morels—and morel hunters—in the Pacific Northwest. My guess is that there isn't a person on the planet who knows why. We had good snowpack this winter, the wettest March on record, average moisture in April, and some nice warm days in May. Yet the morels remain coy. The ones that are up are very nice indeed: large, heavy-bodied naturals, most of them bug-free. But they're few and far between. Mostly I've been finding singletons like the five-incher below: big, beautiful, white-stemmed, cold to the touch, wormless—and lacking friends. The other image below is the exception for the most part. From what I've been hearing, this is the case for both Oregon and Washington. Montana is starting to put out burn morels, a different story altogether.

The point is this: Morals are a mystery. We don't fathom them. Neither morel hunters nor mycologists fully understand what makes them tick, and so guessing at why some years are more productive than others is just that: speculation. But hey, at least we have some new taxonomy to ponder as of this April. Morel geeks have been waiting for the DNA verdicts for a long time. It's no surprise that the morels of Eurasia differ taxonomically from our North American morels, and now we have new names to learn. For instance, we have a name to go with the confusing morel that hunters call the western mountain blond: Morchella frustrata (and, perhaps more relevant, DNA sequencing tells us it's in the black clade). Click here for the lowdown on new species designations across North America.

I had a pretty good outing this past week, all things considered. I got nearly a basket (just shy of 12 pounds) after putting some serious milage on my boots on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning. I hit one good spot that produces every year; otherwise it was a matter of finding the right habitat at the right elevation with the right slope aspect, and then walking, walking, and more walking. I covered some ground, which is what you need to do on a year like this.

When I got my hard-earned treasure home, all the morels gathered on Wednesday went straight into the dehydrator because they'd spent too much time in a warm car. Thursday's haul got high-graded (even a single wormhole meant shunting to the dryer), bagged up (in paper bags), and immediately refrigerated. Luckily the high-graded mushrooms still represented the lion's share. Now, what to cook? Omelets, of course.

Next I bought some local lamb shoulder, a pound of fava beans, and picked a bunch of fresh herbs from the garden. Lamb, morels, favas, and herbs. Hello springtime!

1 lb orecchiette
3 tbsp olive oil
1 lb lamb shoulder, cubed
1 medium onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup white wine
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 cups or more, chicken stock
fresh herbs, chopped (oregano, thyme, rosemary)
1 lb fresh morels, halved
1 lb fava beans, shelled
salt and pepper
parmesan cheese at table

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a skillet. Brown lamb thoroughly. Remove lamb.

2. In the same pan, sweat onion, carrot, and celery for several minutes until soft. Add garlic and another tablespoon of olive oil if necessary. Cook together for a minute. De-glaze with white wine. Stir in tomato paste and fresh herbs.

3. Add 1 cup of chicken stock, return browned lamb to pan, and simmer. Add another cup of stock when the first cup has mostly reduced and continue to simmer. Allow to reduce again, at least by half. Season with salt and pepper.

4. Bring pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta.

5. Saute morels in butter for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add fava beans and cook together another few minutes, until favas are tender but not too soft. Season.

6. Spoon ragu over pasta and top with morels and lava beans. Serve with parmesan cheese.