Monday, July 30, 2012

Wild Salsify

Foraging is not as foolproof as the blogosphere would sometimes have us believe, even when you have a solid handle on plant ID, habitat, and season. It's not like browsing one's way through wood and dale.

Take, for instance, this wild salsify I picked in Montana back in June. I figured I had the makings of an excellent side dish. I'd been meaning to try wild salsify for years, and here was a bunch of it growing next to the Bitterroot River. To my credit, I recognized the species, knew it was edible, and even had some recipe ideas in mind from past research. This seemed like a slam dunk. I dug up several roots and took them home.

I much prefer the other name by which I've known this pretty, non-native wildflower of dry slopes, road sides, and waste areas for the past 20 years: Johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon. Except in some places it's Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon. Or goat's-beard. Or oysterplant. Oh well, what's in a name.

This genus of dandelion-like plants in the Asteracea family is native to Eurasia. Here it's a weed. We have a few species in the Pacific Northwest, including the western salsify pictured above (also called yellow salsify) Tragopogon dubiusYou can distinguish this species from the meadow salsify (Tragopogon pratensis) by its longer green bracts, which extend well past the yellow rays.

Johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon is an apt name. It opens its flowerhead in the morning and closes before the heat of day. When it goes to seed, it looks like a great, oversized dandelion—a temptation to any kid wandering past, much to the pleasure of this weedy plant, looking to spread its seed far and wide.

The most commonly eaten species of salsify is Tragopogon porrifolius, a purple-flowered variety which can be cultivated in gardens and is said to have been a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. I don't see this one growing wild very often in my region. A closely related root vegetable is called black salsify, Scorzonera hispanica. The domesticated varieties are usually harvested in late fall through early spring.

Once I got the plants home, I found a recipe online that involved braising the peeled roots in water, lemon juice, and herbs before sautéing in olive oil and butter. But no amount of braising could have tenderized these gnarly specimens. Even peeled, they had a tough outer skin wrapped around a pithy interior. Yet that thin interior vein gave a tantalizing hint of the culinary might-have-been. It was soft, buttery, slightly nutty, a bit like artichoke heart. It was quite tasty, as a matter of fact. I sucked it out like marrow from a bone and pondered my next move. Try digging the plant at a different time of year? Look for the more widely used Tragopogon porrifolius?

Arthur Lee Jacobson, who is always an excellent source of Pacific Northwest botanical information, says he concentrates his salsify foraging efforts on the leaves rather than the roots. Maybe this was a hint. Next time I'll look for the purple variety.  Such is the ongoing education of a forager. Failure rides shotgun with success, and experimentation is the order of the day.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Dock Dolmas

Have you ever thought about making your own dolmas, those miraculous pouches of gustatory goodness? Most of us get our dolmas the easy way—from our local Greek deli. The concept is simple enough on its face: grape leaves stuffed with rice, fresh herbs, spices, maybe some chopped nuts or fruit, sometimes meat. But, like Chinese dumplings or ravioli, unless you plan to make a large quantity, it just seems easier to take what the deli has to offer.

And if you're like me, at some point you decide it's time to make your own at home, never mind whether it's a big batch or not. So you start researching recipes. That's when the disappointment begins. The time and effort that will be expended on this simple finger food seems all out of whack. My guess is that this out-of-whackness stems from some sort of need for tradition and authenticity. I've written about that irksome word, authenticity, before.

This is where I found myself recently. Thinking about making dolmas. I was about to hang it up, when I decided screw it, I'm making my own version of dolmas with a bunch of leftovers and a ticking clock, authenticity be damned. It took less than 20 minutes from start to finish. Here's the ingredient list and captain's log:

1 dozen large dock leaves (more on those later)
2 - 3 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1/2 yellow onion, diced
2 - 3 cloves garlic, diced
2 cups cooked rice
1 large lemon, juiced
1 large handful mint & parsley, chopped
salt and pepper

Minute 1: Pick several large dock leaves in front yard. Put pot of water on the boil.

Minute 3: Dice leftover onion half.

Minute 4: Chop two cloves of garlic.

Minute 5: Blanche five dock leaves one at a time for 30 seconds each; remove to paper towels, careful not to tear leaves.

Minute 8: Add a couple tablespoons of olive oil to skillet over medium heat. Sweat onions and garlic.

Minute 9: Pick large handful of parsley and mint from herb garden. Chop together.

Minute 11: Add two cups of leftover white rice to skillet. Stir together, then kill heat.

Minute 12: Squeeze large lemon, about 1/4 cup juice, and add to skillet. Add herbs. Season with salt and pepper, plus more olive oil if necessary. Stir well.

Minute 14: Begin wrapping dock leaves with rice mixture. Use burrito technique, folding over two spoonfuls of rice and tucking corners before rolling up.

Minute 18: Arrange dolmas on plate. Drizzle with olive oil and a sprinkling of course sea salt.

Now, because I was in a hurry, I only made four finished dolmas (though this amount of rice mixture will make a dozen), and they were not up to my usual rolling standards (burrito and otherwise), but the point is I made a very tasty snack with a nutritious backyard weed and some leftovers in a brief window of time.

As for the dock, it's a weed, no doubt very nutritious. You've all seen it before. Genus Rumex. Lots of different species, some more sour (curly dock), some more bitter (broad-leaved dock). The idea for making dolma wrappers came out of the blue. I've been watching this weed in my front yard for a couple weeks now, marveling at its rapid growth, when it occurred to me that the leaves would make good wrappers.

Simplicity itself.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Save Bristol Bay

Now is the time to stand up for salmon, grizzly bears, the 10,000-year-old cultures of Native Alaskans, and one of North America's signature ecosystems.

Please, if you enjoy this blog and what it means to savor our wild places, take a moment to add your name to the many who are trying to save Bristol Bay and stop Pebble Mine.

The proposed mine would be in the headwaters of the greatest salmon-producing watershed in the world, a place of unparalleled natural value and unbroken ecological processes. The rivers that empty into Bristol Bay, Alaska, nurture more salmon than anywhere else on Earth. All five species of Pacific salmon spawn in the system, as well as trout and char. Bears, moose, caribou, and a host of other large mammals thrive here. It's a landscape of stunning beauty.

Ten billion tons of toxic mine tailings are not compatible with this ecosystem.

Tailings dams bigger than Grand Coulee Dam in the Bristol Bay headwaters, an active seismic zone, are not compatible with this ecosystem.

The EPA recently released its draft assessment, suggesting that environmental degradation, should the mine proceed, is likely, even imminent. The EPA has the authority under 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to put a stop to this nonsense. Pebble Mine supporters are on the ropes. It's time to knock them out for good. Tell the EPA and your elected officials NO PEBBLE MINE. Time is running out for public input. This is the final week to let your voice be heard.

For more information:
In late May I attended the first public hearing on the issue, held in Seattle. The room was packed, and then the overflow room was packed. In all, I counted more than 400 people in attendance, and according to this summary, more than 80 percent of the speakers supported the EPA and its draft assessment. (More than 90% in the Bristol Bay regional hearings were in support.)

The comment period (2 minutes per person) included testimonies from Native American subsistence fishermen, commercial fishermen from Washington State and Alaska, local businesses and tour operators, and those who simply love our last wild places and want to protect them. The few speakers in favor of the mine could only summon feeble arguments based on speculative profits that don't take into account the endless years of publicly-funded cleanup associated with the usual mega-mine boondoggles.

It's time to say NO to greed, environmental devastation, and bowing down at the material altar. Sign this petition to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and U.S. President Barack Obama. If you're an angler, you can sign this Trout Unlimited petition and let your voice be heard. Haven't you had enough of these business-as-usual scams already?

Photo at top: Ben Knight

Monday, July 9, 2012

Dept. of Horn-tooting

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of introducing national NPR correspondent Martin Kaste to the woods—and all the possibilities for nourishment that await within. The segment was part of a week-long series devoted to "West Coast Innovators."Short radio interviews can be tricky, but I think Martin did an excellent job of capturing the many levels of awareness that go into foraging, from the sheer visceral pleasure of it to the culinary to the cautionary.

Listen to my NPR interview:

The following week, while in the Cascades hunting spring porcini, I took a break on the edge of cell range to speak with James Beard Award-winning food writer and personality Anthony Dias Blue. Listen to our conversation on "Blue Lifestyle" (starts around 18 minute mark):

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Strawberry Shortcake with Elderflower Whipped Cream

These jaunty Independence Day colors seem appropriate for a July Fourth post—with a dash of green added to the red, white, and blue because we all know that true patriots are environmentalists trying to conserve the nation's resources and wild places. Right?

The strawberries came from our garden, and Martha made the drop biscuits. My contribution was the elderflower bouquet. Though I picked it more than a week ago along the Wenatchee River near Leavenworth, there should still be some blue elderberry trees blooming in the upper canyons of Eastern Washington.

Elderflower is one of those special tastes of late spring and early summer, right up there with cherries and porcini mushrooms.  I put up several pints of elderflower syrup each year to use in cordials and desserts year-round. Most recipes that rely on the singular flavor of elderflower fall back on a pre-made syrup, but while the flowers are in bloom you might as well do a direct infusion.

The dessert pictured is my friend Jon Rowley's recipe for Strawberry Shortcake, which appeared in Edible Seattle a couple years ago. We took it one notch higher with Elderflower Whipped Cream (plus an ample sprinkling of those delicate, star-shaped florets). To make your own, just immerse a dozen or so flowerheads in a bowl with a pint or two of heavy cream, either overnight or all day. Make sure you remove as much of the stem as possible, since most of the elderberry tree is toxic. Cover with plastic wrap. The cream should be suitably floral after several hours of infusion. Strain (you'll need to give the soggy flowers a good squeeze), add a spoonful of sugar, and whip just before serving.

Happy July Fourth everyone.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Spring Kings: Another Season, Another Lesson

It's getting a little late in the season to talk about spring kings, but it seems that every year I learn a little bit more about these tantalizing members of the bolete family that are so emblematic of the Kingdom of Fungi in general. For instance, even though it only received species designation in 2008, Boletus rex-veris has been picked and eaten by Italian-Americans for a hundred years. You can read the many spring porcini posts on this blog—from my first post to my experiments with freezing buttons to taxonomic clarity—as a record of my own progress.

Much of my understanding about how to cook and care for the the "little pigs" has been won through trial and error. There just isn't an operating manuel. As you might recall, I started "field dressing" my porcini a couple years ago in an effort to keep them clean and to combat the bugs that are as boletivoracious as us. Boletus rex-veris, in contrast to B. edulis, does much of its growing underground, so it can be quite a dirty mushroom. Dirt and duff-covered mushrooms piled together in a basket or bucket will share their dirt like STDs, making for a difficult cleaning proposition at home, particularly with the pores under the cap. Wherever I happen to find them, I clean them up and check for insect infestations, taking precautions to cover up the scene of the capture when I'm finished.

Field dressing consists of trimming the stem of any dirt, cleaning the cap as thoroughly as possible, and finally slicing the mushroom in half to check for worms. Even seemingly pristine #1 buttons can have fly larvae in them that will make a mess in no time. If I see any bug activity (as in the image at right and a closeup below, showing the culprit), I slice it out with my knife. This often takes care of localized infestations and saves a mushroom that would otherwise be ruined before dinnertime.

And don't be fooled. Bolete fly larvae can riddle a mushroom with their hungry tunneling in the time that it takes to drive your haul home from the mountains. As they warm up, the larvae become more active. Unless you crank your air conditioner, the temperature in your car will cause the bugs to stir. This isn't too much of a problem provided you don't dilly-dally along the way—and you get the mushrooms in the refrigerator asap.

Sometimes I'll camp in the woods and spread my mushroom hunting over a couple days or more. Usually, when multiple species are fruiting at the height of the spring season, I'll try to do my morel hunting at the beginning and save my porcini hunting for last. A load of porcini hanging around camp unrefrigerated is an invitation to disaster. A couple weeks ago I came home with several pounds of #1 and #2 buttons. It was cold and drizzly in Seattle and I was exhausted, so I left my basket of mushrooms on the front stoop overnight. Bad call. Even temps in the low-40's aren't cool enough. Plus, humidity is a killer. About half the load was beyond repair by the next day. Even a cold fridge doesn't completely stop the worms in their tracks; it just slows them down (though I suspect a really cold fridge can prevent additional larvae from hatching).

I've been paying close attention to a recent batch. A few mushrooms that got field dressed and looked absolutely spotless before the drive home ended up having some noticeable tunneling within three hours of picking. Others that still looked perfect got sliced in half again (i.e. quartered) in my kitchen. This revealed minor bug activity that required immediate action. Finally, even mushrooms that passed with flying colors required checking after a day or two in the fridge, and some of these showed minor infestation. The point is, if you want to pick and eat porcini and not cook up a panful of maggots, you need to be vigilant.

The bolete below has the appearance of a #1 button. It was firm and didn't show any signs of infestation when I trimmed the stem. I decided to keep it whole. After a week in the fridge, this is what it looked like. Look closely and you'll see that the worms attacked via the cap, not the stem. If I had cut the mushroom in half when I picked it, I might have been able to isolate the infestation and save it.

If this is all too much for some folks, who don't even want to think about extra protein in their food...well, mushroom hunting probably isn't your cup of beef.

P.S. If you're in British Columbia, I'd like to know whether you find B. rex-veris, and if so, how far north.