Friday, April 26, 2013

Wild Bibimbap

I've been on a Korean comfort food kick of late, and comfort food doesn't get much more Cadillac-like than a big steaming bowl of bibimbap.

The translation is "mixed rice"—it's basically rice covered with dollops of prepared dishes, or namul, which are then mixed together at table. The rice is heaped into a large bowl (all the better if it's a heated stone bowl, or dolsot, unlike the cheap plastic bowl pictured), and then a variety of meats and vegetables are arranged in a colorful and artfully balanced manner over the rice. The piece de resistance is a fried egg on top. A vinegared gochujang sauce ties it all together.

Here's the thing: bibimbap is traditionally served with at least one wild ingredient, gosari, also known as bracken fern (and sometimes called fernbrake on imported packages of dried bracken). This time of year the young fern shoots can be eaten fresh. Click here for instructions on foraging and preparing bracken (plus a health advisory). For bibimbap I like to cut the parboiled bracken into 3-inch sections and stir-fry with a little sesame oil, garlic, soy, and Chinese cooking wine.

I added two other wild ingredients to my bibimbap: stinging nettles and oyster mushrooms. The nettles are a substitute for the traditional spinach, the oysters for shiitake. To prepare the nettles, I harvested several cups of tender young nettle tops and boiled them for a minute to neutralize the sting, then wrung out the water with my hands before giving the nettles a quick rough chop. Next, I stir-fried them in a little peanut oil with minced garlic, a pinch of salt, and soy sauce. The oyster mushrooms got cut into strips and stir-fried the same way until slightly browned on the edges.

Bibimbap is simple fare, but it requires alacrity in the kitchen—and with so many different ingredients, my advice is to make this dish for four or more people. Do all the prep work first (i.e., the chopping), then stir-fry each of the namul toppings in quick succession. Mound onto a large serving plate and keep covered. Other common toppings include: julienned and stir-fried zucchini; julienned carrots, which can be served raw or quickly stir-fried; bean sprouts, which should be boiled for a couple minutes until tender and then drained and tossed with a splash of sesame oil; and thinly sliced steak, bulgogi, marinated beforehand with a little sesame oil, garlic, soy sauce, and sugar before stir-frying.

Once all this busy work is complete, use your innate artistic skills to make an eye-catching presentation, kick back in a cozy place with friends and some cold beers, and dig in.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Art of Wild Mushroom Cookery

Bill Jones, an award-winning cookbook author, chef, and consultant, calls the bountiful Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island home. There he's restored an old farmhouse—Deerholme—to use as his base of operations. Lucky for Bill, prodigious mushroom fruitings occur in the nearby mountains, valleys, and coastal forests. I caught up with Bill recently to talk about his new cookbook, The Deerholme Mushroom Book, and his thoughts on wild mushroom foraging and cooking.

FOTL: Tell us a little bit about your neck of the woods in British Columbia. Are there specialties in your region or certain species you're known for?

Bill Jones: The south Vancouver Island region is generally a maritime Mediterranean climate, and the Cowichan Valley is one of the sunnier places in Canada. This allows species like the white Oregon truffle to thrive. The tree type is dominantly Douglas fir with a mixture of western hemlock, grand fir, white pine, and cedar, which makes for a nice variety of terrain for many of the choice edible varieties. Fall is a pretty special place here for mushroom foraging.

One of our claims to fame is for giant versions of mushroom specimens. We have a nice combination of rainfall and heat that produces massive growth in some mushrooms. There are huge cauliflower fungi, giant Pacific golden chanterelles, and porcini that have weighed over three pounds. One of my most exciting finds was a white morel that weighed in at over two pounds.

What's your favorite mushroom to forage?

That's a hard question. They're like children—hard to pick a favorite. I would say the pine mushroom [matsutake] would be at the top of the list. The aroma of a fresh pine is intoxicating. I like to stand there and breathe in the heady scent when I find one. It always makes me happy.

What sort of habitat and forest conditions do they prefer?

Locally we look on slopes with southern exposure and a mix of Douglas fir and hemlock. Nearer the coast we find them in thickets of wild huckleberry. The pine seems to like a lot of rain and the fruiting really kicks off in late October and early November.

How do you like to cook pines? 

I like to make a bowl of nice chicken stock, greens from the garden, udon noodles, and thiny sliced pine mushrooms. It is a satisfying and rewarding bowl of soup.

Why should home cooks be excited to cook with wild mushrooms?

Mushrooms are nature's flavor booster; they make any dish a little more appealing to the taste buds. Some are dense and meaty, others are soft and supple. They all contain some degree of natural sugars which caramelize when cooked. This adds to their delicious taste and makes some mushrooms, like porcini, absolutely incredible. There are also significant medicinal benefits. Many have immune system boosting properties that can play a healthy and vibrant role in your diet. Shiitake mushrooms have been used as a medicine in China for the last thousand years.

What would you say to the beginning mushroom hunter?

It would probably be wise to say a few words about fear. The phobia of mushrooms stops a lot of people from enjoying the vast world of fungi. Much of this fear is misplaced, but some of it is warranted. I tell new foragers to educate themselves on a few easy targets like chanterelles and porcini and to have a healthy respect for all the rest. You should never consume a mushroom when you are not 100 percent sure of the identification. A good guidebook is very helpful, but nothing beats the experience of seeing the mushroom in the field. A guided forage is a good way to start, either with the local mycological society, naturalist tours, or through workshops like those we give here at Deerholme Farm.

What species and cooking techniques would you recommend for beginners?

I would recommend you start with chanterelles. Make sure they are relatively dry—spread them out on paper towel for several hours to wick away moisture. Clean off any dirt, debris, or browned edges. Heat a skillet very hot and add a mixture of butter and oil (I use grapeseed oil). Add the mushrooms and sauté until they release moisture and start to brown around the edges. Add a clove of chopped garlic and salt and pepper. This is the best way to eat chanterelles. Try on top of a grilled piece of bread, cooked pasta, or rice. Simple and delicious.

Have the mushrooms taught you anything over the years?

Mushroom hunting in our region forces you to become an environmentalist. You quickly realize that mushrooms require prime habitat to flourish. Trees are a precious resource that have deeply ingrained relationships with the local fungi population. We must protect our forests from over-harvesting and abuse if we want to see the mushrooms flourish for future generations. I try to pass this message on to all our students here on the farm. We all have a place in protecting our forests and a duty to stand up for those who cannot.

Lastly, tell us about a recipe in the book that every wild mushroom enthusiast and/or home cook should try. 

I love to play around with classic flavors and simple preparations. In the book there is a recipe for a warm bacon and potato salad that I use with many variations. You have to source good ingredients to make it really shine: local potatoes, thick-cut slab bacon, fresh herbs, and of course fresh mushrooms. Any mushroom will also work in this recipe; you could blend morels or even brown button mushrooms into the mix with excellent results.

Warm Bacon, Chanterelle, and Potato Salad

A variation on a classic German potato salad made with chanterelles. It is best to add the dressing to warm potatoes so they soak up all the dressing. Serve at room temperature.

2 lb (1 kg) potatoes, peeled
1/4 lb (115 g) thick-cut bacon, cut in thin strips
1 lb (450 g) chanterelles, cleaned and sliced salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp (30 ml) apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
2 tbsp (30 ml) grainy mustard
1 tsp (5 ml) chopped capers
3 tbsp (45 ml) chopped sweet onion, fresh chives, or green onions, minced, for garnish

1. Add potatoes to a large pot of salted cold water. Bring to a boil and cook until tender.

2.  Meanwhile, warm a skillet over medium-high heat, add the bacon, and heat until the bacon is browned and has rendered its fat. Add the chanterelles and sauté until the mushrooms give off moisture and it has completely evaporated. Season with salt and pepper. When the mushrooms just begin to brown on the edges, remove from heat and set aside.

3. In a large mixing bowl, combine vinegar, oil, mustard, capers, and onion. Stir until mixed.

4. Drain potatoes and add while still warm to the dressing. Add the bacon and toss to coat. Serve warm, garnished with fresh chives or green onions.

Serves 6-8

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Devil's Club Stir-fry

I happened on a beautiful grove of devil's club today. This isn't the sort of approbation one normally hears about the ornery plant. Devil's club, with its nasty spines and towering stalks, is the bane of hikers in the Pacific Northwest, especially off-trail hikers. Get stuck in a swampy bog of devil's club and you'll learn to avoid the stuff at all costs.

But this grove was right off the trail, allowing for a quick detour with safe passage nearby, and the buds were perfect harvest size, which is to say about two to three inches long, with nascent spines still soft—in stark contrast to the sharp, hardened spines on the stalk. I nabbed a scant two cups and was back on my way, with only a few flecks of blood on gloveless hands for my trouble.

The buds have a resinous, piney flavor that strikes me as a powerful distillation of a Northwest conifer forest. I've used them to infuse cream for a chocolate sauce and to lend a woodsy edge to a bordelaise sauce. They're terrific simply sautéed in butter. With this in mind, I decided to stir-fry this batch to go with some Sichuan leftovers.

3 cloves garlic, diced
2 loose cups devil's club buds
5 green onions, split lengthwise and cut into 3-inch sections
1 small red pepper, cut into 3-inch slivers
1 tbsp peanut oil
splash chicken stock

1. Heat oil in wok until hot but not smoking. Add garlic, stirring, careful not to overcook.

2. When garlic is fragrant and just starting to turn golden, tip wok back and forth a few times, spreading oil throughout. Add devil's club buds, green onions, and red pepper, stirring vigorously. (Tipping the wok and stirring vigorously prevents buds from immediately soaking up all the oil.)

3. Stir-fry together a few minutes, until green onions begin to darken. The wok will likely be dry. Add a splash of chicken stock, stir a few more times, and remove to a serving dish. Sprinkle a few generous pinches of salt.

Note: As an alternative, omit the garlic and fresh pepper; instead, add half a teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns and and several dried chile peppers (halved and de-seeded) to the hot oil, stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds, before adding the devil's club buds and green onions.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Razor's Edge

One of the great pleasures of my foraging workshops is seeing the moment of recognition: that instant when a student uncovers nature's banquet for the first time. Such moments were repeated many times over this past weekend on Washington's storm-tossed ocean beaches, as fifteen of us plied the razor clam flats.

I can't remember back-to-back digs of such abundance. The shows were everywhere, the clams of good size, with a few mossbacks in the mix (clams old and big enough to have dark mottling on the shell and a greenish hue). I managed several approaching six inches, including one just a hair under at 5 7/8. A Pacific razor clam of that length has more meat on it than a quail.

I had to keep explaining to everyone that it wasn't usually this easy. The sun was out; on Saturday clammers were even walking the beach in t-shirts; and the clams were begging for discovery, with dozens of shows in an area not much larger than a bath tub!

This was my first razor clam class. We rented a house at Seabrook near Pacific Beach for two nights so we could get in two digs and cook up a feast with our catch. The menu included Fried Razor Clams, Razor Clam Chowder, and Pasta alle Vongole, among many other treats.

Digging razor clams is pure fun—and the meal that awaits ain't bad either. When I got my haul home and fully processed, I decided to try something new. The clam's siphon has a texture similar to the mantle of a squid, while the foot—or digger, as it's known—is considerably more tender. A quick stir-fry with some veggies seemed like a worthy departure from the tried-and-true comfort recipes, and it was.

Chinese Stir-fried Razor Clams

1 cup razor clams, cut into 2-inch strips
1 small red bell pepper, cut to match clams
3 - 4 celery stalks, cut to match clams
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1 tbsp ginger, fine dice
1 tbsp garlic, fine dice
2 tbsp peanut oil
2 tbsp sambal olek (pickled chili sauce) *

1 1/2 tsp Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry)
1/2 tsp salt

1 1/2 tsp white sugar
2 tsp Chinese black vinegar *
1 tsp Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry)
1 1/2 tsp corn starch
3 tbsp chicken stock

 available at most Asian markets and some conventional grocers

1. In a bowl, combine clams with marinade and set aside.

2. Whisk together sauce ingredients in a small bowl.

3. In a wok or large saute pan, heat oil over medium-high heat until not quite smoking. Add sambal olek and stir vigorously, 30 seconds. Add ginger and garlic, continuing to stir until fragrant, about a minute.

4. Add sweet red pepper, celery, and clams. Stir thoroughly, coating with red oil, about 2 minutes. Add sliced green onions. Give sauce a stir and add to wok. Stir well another minute and serve immediately with rice.