Monday, January 28, 2013

Truffle Redux

I went back to the Oregon Truffle Festival again this year. It was a no-brainer: wild foods, fun people, and more Willamette Valley wine than a ship of Vikings could put away. What's not to love?

Connie Green, longtime forager and owner of Wine Forest Wild Foods (French Laundry is a client), was one of the featured speakers, and there was the usual fast-paced agenda of lectures, forums, gastronomical heroics, plus a few hours in the field to get dirty, breath in some of that misty Willamette air, and work off all those calories (okay, maybe not all of them) during a guided truffle foray.

Just the way salt is a key ingredient in a good chocolate chip cookie, the success of the Oregon Truffle Festival rests on elements that might, at first glance, seem less than obvious, such as a hard-to-pin-down bonhomie that develops among the attendees. When you're spending two or three days with strangers, you better establish some rapport. All weekend long I found myself exchanging email addresses and phone numbers with an eclectic, sociable bunch of people drawn together to the church of food and drink.

Maybe some of the good vibes came from the success so many enjoyed while digging their own truffles on Saturday. I've said it before and I'll say it again: finding your own food is satisfying and infectious. I saw newbies emerge from the woods with huge grins and handfuls of Oregon white truffles. There were a few dogs on hand to help sniff out the tuberous delicacies, including Chloe, a lab whose master turned out to be John Getz, a professional forager who has been called "the mushroom whisperer."

I first learned of Getz from a DVD that David Arora showed me a few years ago. Arora said it was like watching a magic trick. The video, filmed on the Oregon coast, follows Getz along on his rambling rounds as he appears to pull #1 matsutake buttons, one after another, from thin air. Nowhere is there even the slightest hint of cap emerging from the sandy humus or even a bump in the duff—and yet this soft-spoken guy uncovers buckets of perfect matsi that he might as well have pulled rabbit-like from a hat. Getz laughed when I told him about the video, and offered modestly that it was just a matter of knowing which trees hosted a fruiting. Yeah, that and having a ninja fungal sense and nearly four decades of scouring Pacific Northwest mushroom patches under your belt.

A few food highlights. Saturday's post-foray luncheon, held at Silvan Ridge Winery in the bucolic Lorane Valley and helmed by Jason French from Ned Ludd in Portland and Shiloh Ficek of Red Hills Market in Dundee, kicked off with a Pinot Noir barrel tasting and continued with one of the best dishes of the weekend, a robustly truffled Chicken Liver Mousse (pictured at left) that was perfectly paired with a J. Scott Cellars Roussanne. Ficek told me he was a little nervous about the mousse because usually he made it in smaller batches, but the smooth texture and well-balanced accent of white truffle turned out just right.

French's wood-fired Pork Coppa Sandwich (pictured at right) anchored the meal. It came dressed with quince jam and a black truffle slaw, along with a glass of Silvan Ridge Syrah. It was a beguiling mixture of earthy and domestic, salty and sweet, and succulent and crunchy. The wine pairing was another hit, and I ended up going home with bottles of both the J. Scott Roussanne and a Silvan Ridge Muscat that accompanied a dessert of Black Truffle Pear Crostata, a dish I plan to replicate for a future post.

We got back to the hotel at 4 p.m., with merely two hours of down-time before another feast of even greater proportions, the Grand Truffle Dinner. After taking photos of the first course, which stretched nearly the length of the room on two long prep tables, I went to get my seating assignment and was delighted to find myself next to Clare and Brian, the husband-and-wife team behind Big Table Farm and Wine in Gaston, Oregon. Let me tell you, this was like winning the lottery—like doubling your money in Vegas. Besides the very generous pours (and more pours) that accompanied each course during the meal, the Big Table duo had smuggled in several of their own bottles to share with their tablemates. A big happy table indeed.

Among my favorite dishes at the Grand Truffle Dinner was the first course, a charcuterie plate prepared by Elias Cairo of Olympic Provisions in Portland (pictured at left) that boasted perhaps the most intense truffle experience of the weekend: slices of white truffle-infused saucisson (i.e., dry-cured salami) along with Jamon York, Mortadella, truffled mustard, and some simple yet exquisitely pickled beets and onions. Another winner, dreamed up by Nick Balla from Bar Tartine in San Francisco, was an umami bomb of sablefish, sunchoke, and Kabocha squash, its white truffle broth so good that I saw guests tipping their plates back to drink in every last drop.

A scent of truffles hovered through the ballroom as the dinner went on late into the night and a jazz combo tried to play over the sounds of active silverware. There was much imbibing, and then, late-night, I found myself among a group of revelers laying siege to a 1988 Champagne Fleury while plotting foraging expeditions of the future. Good times.

The Oregon Truffle Festival is held the last weekend of January. I've already blocked out the dates for next year.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Hawk Lady

Dear readers, I'm pleased to share with you an essay of mine that was a finalist in's third annual writing contest. Terrain is an online lit journal that celebrates the intersection between nature and the human-mediated world. My submission, "The Hawk Lady," was published in issue 31, which debuted yesterday, January 15.

Those of you have read my book Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager will recognize the essay's setting—the Rogue River Canyon of southwestern Oregon, where I spent a year off the grid with my family, a sabbatical away from the city that inspired both the book and this essay. So while it's not about foraging, per se, this piece is very much a part of what I'm doing now and my interest in our relationship with the wild.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Beyond Backyard Chickens

Santa left me a couple new books under the tree this Christmas. Though not about foraging, per se, these should interest anyone who's trying to take more charge of their place in the food chain.

We have a joke in Seattle about competitive neighbors trying to out-backyard chicken each other. It used to be a new car or elaborate lawn-care scheme was the path to keeping up with the Joneses. Now it's goats. Not too long ago a herd of the hungry beasts was let loose in a vacant lot overgrown with blackberries near my home. Each day, while driving to school, we monitored the flock's progress. In less than a week the quarter acre of unruly brambles was munched to the ground.

Goats have other uses, of course, from dairy to companionship. If you're ready to out-backyard chicken  the weird guy across the fence, Jennie P. Grant—deemed the "Godmother of Goat Lovers" by Time magazine—with her book City Goats is for you. Me, I just got a kick out of reading about this escalation in the locavore arms race. Grant, besides being the founder and president of the Goat Justice League, is a funny and informative guide to the intricacies of urban goat-keeping. For instance, if you're just looking for a lawnmower on four legs, think again. They will "eat your rosebushes clean" while nibbling the grass only here and there, "creating a look very similar to Rod Stewart's hairstyle."

Grant covers the basics of goat needs, from shelter to food to play. Yes, play. "Climbing is one way that goats have fun!" And whatever you do, don't build a climbing structure in the back yard that will allow your goat to jump into the competitive chicken farmer's yard next door. As for the dairy piece, there is an entire chapter on how to milk your goat (don't forget to shave around the udder), along with discussions of pasteurization, cheesemaking (with recipes for mozzarella and chèvre), and even camping with your goat.

One thing Grant doesn't touch on is goat meat. Urban carnivores less sentimental about their herd animals might turn to Leslie Miller's book, Uncle Dave's Cow, for their meat-eating needs. If you've ever gone in on a beef cow or a portion thereof, you know about this increasingly popular way to confront the realities of an omnivorous diet. It's been a few years since I've done so, mostly because the freezer is so full of foraged foods. The last time, we purchased a quarter organic cow from Skagit Valley Ranch, which translated into about 150 pounds of meat in a variety of different cuts and hamburger, all of it shrink-wrapped and frozen.

As Miller explains it with entertaining honesty, the impetus behind sharing in the proceeds of her uncle's cow was directly tied up in the complexities of modern life: "I'm busy, my husband's busy, and my children have more active social lives than we do, and dinner isn't so much something to be crafted as it is a daily time-suck." Say it, sister! "Throw in a liberal urban commitment to eating 'good' meat and food in general, if possible—organic, sustainable, locally produced, all the buzzwords—and we seemed like good candidates for buying into that cow."

In some cases, as famously explored by Michael Pollan, you can buy into that cow well in advance of the day of reckoning, watching it mature (if you want) prior to slaughter. Whether there is a demand yet to actually witness or participate in the killing and butchering of a cow, I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised if this option was available in some cases.  Miller doesn't go too far down this road because, let's face it, if you're reading the book then you're likely already aware of how distanced we've become from the food on our plates. "I love cooking and raising food," she writes, "but there are limits to what I can or am willing to do...I don't want to kill and skin my own animals on a regular basis, the former being a big downer and the latter requiring skills I don't possess."

A good alternative is buying into a whole animal that has been raised in a way that's compatible with your beliefs. Miller takes the reader by the hand for a friendly walk through the process, illuminating the lingo (grass-fed versus pastured, for instance), butchery, storage, and many other factors that make this a different path from simply driving down to Whole Foods to pick up an organic t-bone. One really helpful chapter focuses on the many cuts of meat that will be included in a standard order, some of them unusual to a first-timer, and how they might be used, plus recipes.

Oh, and for the urban goatherd (see above) who has grown weary of her tulip-devouring charges, there's also a chapter on goat cookery. ;-)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Nettle-Miso Halibut with Squash Purée

Happy new year everyone! This past year has been a busy one here at FOTL headquarters, with mostly non-blog related work. To my regular readers, THANK YOU for continuing to stop by despite the slowdown in posts. In coming months I'll have more to say about new developments but suffice to say 2013 should be an exciting year.

In the meantime, this dish is emblematic of kitchen resolutions I'll be trying to keep in the new year, namely an effort to think more about flavors and how they work together regardless of tradition or the proliferation of online recipe homogeneity. Improvisation: we'll be shooting for more of that in the coming year.

On that note, here's something I pulled together with a bunch of leftovers, a nice piece of fish, and a jar of dried stinging nettles that's been mocking me from its cobwebby corner of late.

Halibut with Nettle-Miso Glaze

24 oz halibut fillet, cut into 4 portions
1/4 cup white miso
1/4 cup aji-mirin
1/4 cup sugar
2 - 3 tbsp dried stinging nettle

1. Pre-heat oven to broil.

2. Combine miso, aji-mirin, and sugar in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and whisk together into a glaze. Add dried stinging nettle to taste.

3. Cover baking pan with a sheet of tin foil. Grease foil with cooking oil. Place halibut fillets on greased foil and brush with nettle-miso gaze. Broil for several minutes, depending on thickness of fillets, until glaze is bubbling and starting to brown. Fish should be tender, opaque, and easily flaked.

4. Plate glazed halibut over squash puree.

Squash Purée

2 large delicata squash
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 thumb ginger, peeled & diced
2 tbsp diced fennel bulb
1/4 cup sake
chicken stock
salt and white pepper, to taste

1. Cut squash in half and spoon out seeds. Rub with oil, season, and bake in 400-degree oven until soft, 30 - 45 minutes depending on size of squash. Scoop out squash and set aside.

2. Heat oil in a medium saucepan and sauté ginger and fennel for a minute or two. Add squash, mashing together. Pour in sake and allow to bubble off, stirring.

3. When sake has mostly cooked off, add chicken stock a little at a time and mix with immersion blender until consistency is fairly smooth. Season with salt and white pepper.

Serves 4.

The miso glaze is nearly representative of what I mentioned above as the proliferation of online recipe homogeneity. I'm sure you know what I mean. There's so much sameness on the web, a result of food bloggers copying each other. Mediocre recipes can now be found, nearly word for word, in such abundance that they might seem like classics. This glaze is actually pretty good (and simple!), but it's certainly not original in most aspects. I tweaked it with some stinging nettle to add an earthy dimension. The squash recipe was a complete improvisation and complemented the fish.

Here's to more improvisation in 2013!