Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The King of Salmon

A few weeks ago I made a pilgrimage to the Columbia River to pay my respects to the king of spring.

Not to be confused with those porcini mushrooms also called "spring kings," Columbia River spring Chinook—or springers—are some of the first returning among the Pacific salmon, and many piscivores consider them the best tasting of all the many races and runs of salmon.

Taste is largely subjective, sure, but there's science behind this conceit. Salmon spawn in the fall and early winter. Because springers enter fresh water so early and must hold on for months before spawning—without eating—these particular fish have evolved to be especially fatty. They survive on their impressive fat stores, and we all know that fat means flavor, right?

The Columbia River spring Chinook fishery is limited and tightly regulated. Anglers can fish the main stem in a few spots as well as tributaries such as the Willamette and Cowlitz. We fished Drano Lake, one of the better known hot spots for springers. Drano is a manmade lake created by the fill left over from the construction of Bonneville Dam. The Little White Salmon River flows into the lake, making it noticeably colder than the mainstem river, so salmon and steelhead nose into it during their upstream migrations for a refreshing breather. The bulk of the fishery is at the lake's outlet, near a railroad trestle and highway 14 bridge.

We got on the water around 5:15 a.m.—and we weren't alone. The spring king fishery attracts plenty of early risers hoping to put a slab of deep red salmon fillet on the barbecue. Slowly we trolled across the placid waters of Drano Lake, pulling plugs. By 6:30 it was clear that the bite was not on in the lake, so we joined the "toilet bowl" of boats circling the outlet channel where salmon are forced into a narrow channel as they enter and leave the lake.

We switched to bait: cured shrimp and herring, fished at a depth of about 24 feet to avoid snags on the bottom. Though salmon don't actively feed once on the spawning grounds, they can still be provoked to strike at a bait or lure—whether out of territoriality or some memory of their predatory oceanic life, no one really knows. We settled into the somnolent rhythm of the counter-clock "toilet bowl" slow-dance. The first hit, at noon, startled me out of my seat. I grabbed the rod and tried to keep the fish away from the other boats. It took line at will. When we had it close to the boat the nerve-wracking moment commenced (we saw more than one lost at the boat during the day). The king got a look and spooked. It ran under the boat and I had to fight it in close with a distressingly bowed rod tip. A couple more short runs and we got it sideways and in the net.

Phil at Mystical Legends provided excellent guiding. Though it was a slow day overall, we got another strike a few hours later and boated that fish too, going two for two, which isn't a bad hook-to-land ratio when it comes to spring kings. Back home, the first taste was simple, as it should be, to allow the salmon to shine: grilled with a little olive oil and a light sprinkle of salt and pepper. With a fish of this caliber you want to savor every last shred of meat from nose to tail. In my next post I'll have a recipe for Salmon Head Curry that will have you second-guessing your choice of crab bait.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Soondubu Jjigae with Spot Shrimp

Jjigae is Korean for hot pot or stew. Soondubu means silken tofu. This is Korean comfort food at its best, even more than the Bibimbap of an earlier post.

The key is finding quality Korean pepper flakes. I also like to goose mine with an added jolt of pepper paste, gochujang. Look for both at a Korean market such as H Mart, along with the extra soft and silky tofu that comes in a tube-shaped package. For the stock you can make your own with onion, kombu, and dried anchovies, or take a short cut with a store-bought variety (I like the heartiness of beef stock, with a splash of fish sauce added at the end).

Spot shrimp, cooked whole in the shell, add good flavor to the broth. As I mentioned in my previous post about shrimping in Puget Sound, the heads make a killer stock—while the tails are one of the true culinary delights of the Pacific Northwest. It's a rare case of: heads, you win; tails, you win, too!

5-6 fresh spot shrimp (or other large shrimp in shell)
1 10-12 ounce package of extra-silken tofu (soondubu)
1/4 lb pork or steak, sliced thinly across the grain
5 shiitake mushroom caps, sliced into strips (if using dried shiitake, reconstitute in warm water for 20 minutes first)
1 large handful chopped vegetables (bok choy, napa cabbage, etc.)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 tbsp Korean coarse hot pepper flakes (gochugaru), or to taste
1 tbsp Korean pepper paste (gochujang), or to taste (optional)
1 cup meat, vegetable, or fish stock
1 handful other seafood (optional): clams, mussels, squid
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
3 green onions, 2 cut into 3-inch sections and 1 thinly sliced for garnish
2 eggs
2 tsp sesame oil, plus more for serving

Note: Many of the ingredients above can be found in any Asian supermarket in the U.S., though a Korean market is best if you have one nearby. I use H Mart, where I bought my clay pots, gochugaru, gochujang, and soondubu, among other things. Clay vessels are traditional for Korean hot pot; they can be used on the stove top and then as serving dishes, and they keep the food hot! Also, you'll benefit from searching out Korean-made coarse hot pepper flakes (gochugaru), made from sun-dried peppers, which will be more colorful and have a greater depth of flavor.

1. Combine garlic and sesame oil in small bowl (and pepper paste, if using).

2. Heat cooking oil in clay pot or other soup pot over medium heat. Add sliced beef or pork and sauté until edges begin to brown but meat is still rare. Remove to bowl and set aside.

3. Saute shiitake mushrooms a few minutes until starting to brown and then remove to bowl.

4. Add vegetables, green onions, and mixture of garlic and sesame oil to pot and stir until fragrant, 30 seconds.

5. Sprinkle pepper flakes (gochugaru) and stir another minute, careful not to burn.

6. Pour in stock. Bring to boil.

7. Spoon in tofu, then add seafood, including shrimp. Boil together another few minutes.

8. Remove from heat and season with fish sauce, soy sauce, and salt, if necessary. Crack eggs into pot and stir.

9. Ladle into bowls. Garnish with sliced green onion and sesame oil to taste.

Serves 2, with rice

Monday, May 13, 2013

Spot Shrimp on the Menu

Puget Sound's recreational spot shrimp season opened earlier this month. If you've read Fat of the Land, you know how I approached this hotly anticipated fishery in my younger, stupider days. I've taken some grief for the canoe thing, and I'll admit it's not the safest way to get a limit of sea insects—in fact, it's downright dangerous. This year caution got the better part of valor. I joined a friend on his new boat.

It was a beautiful day to be on the Sound. We took the Current Obsession on its maiden fishing trip and loaded up on shrimp with the aid of a very civilized Brutus Plus 40 pot-puller—a technological advancement on my previous experiences pulling in 400 feet of line hand over hand.

Pandemonium reins on the opening day of spot shrimp season. A quarter-mile-long conga line of trucks and trailers waited to launch boats at the public ramp; vessels of varying seaworthiness hustled back and forth through the chop scouting likely shrimping grounds and secret spots; channel 16 was an ongoing chatter of near-misses and at least one pan-pan distress call.

As in all fishing, a certain amount of patience is required. The goopy bait of ground fish heads, cat food, and other smelly products needs to do its work, oozing from the pot in an intoxicating cloud that the shrimp just can't resist. We couldn't exactly keep our grubby paws off the pot either. After barely 45 minutes of soaking we pulled the first one to see if this maiden voyage would be properly christened: a couple dozen spot shrimp scrambled around in the cage, several of which became ebi within minutes.

The fact of the matter is that most recreational shrimpers will spend—after factoring in bait, fuel, and an amortization of pots, buoys, and rope (never mind the cost of the boat!)—about what a landlubber at the fish market will shell out for the privilege. But trust me on this: few tastes equal a fresh spottie pulled from the sea. It is one of the great delicacies of the Pacific Northwest.

Spot shrimp are the largest shrimp on the West Coast, and many restaurants, fish markets, and anglers refuse to call them shrimp at all, using prawn instead. One key point to keep in mind when harvesting spot shrimp is that the head contains an enzyme that can turn the meat to mush. Prevent such a catastrophe by immediately decapitating and rinsing. And don't toss those heads! They make a phenomenal stock or bisque.

I ate up all my shrimp fresh, not bothering to freeze any. My go-to preparations are designed to be simple and highlight the sublime sweet flavor of spots. The smaller ones get transformed into ebi sushi, with a very light steaming of the shrimp so that they remain raw inside yet cooked enough on the outside to be easily removed from the shell, while the larger specimens get butterflied and very lightly sautéed in a little butter.

Seemingly sane individuals are known to lose all common sense in the presence of fresh spot shrimp. One bite and you might be commandeering the nearest canoe too!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Mushroom Hunters

The Mushroom Hunters
Dear Readers:
I'm pleased to announce the forthcoming publication of my new book, The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America. The book goes on sale September 10—but it's now available for pre-order at a bookstore near you, including Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

Some of you may have guessed what I was up to with all the mushroom-related blog posts in recent years (not to mention my rather erratic blogging record of late). The idea for The Mushroom Hunters came to me while harvesting morels in July, 2007, during an episode that's briefly recounted in my first book, Fat of the Land. I was picking in the North Cascades of Washington State near the Canadian border, in one of the last truly wild regions of the Lower 48, home to wolves and grizzlies. A friend and I heard voices in the woods. Moments later we came face-to-face with two men, both wearing impossibly large packs filled with morels, maybe eighty pounds apiece. They stared at us and we stared at them. Nothing was said. Then, just like that, they turned on their heels and disappeared back into the timber. It was like a bigfoot sighting!

After that I was determined to infiltrate the commercial wild mushroom trade, a scrappy, mostly hidden and itinerant enterprise that follows the mushroom flushes year-round, with echoes of Wild West frontier-style capitalism and Gold Rush days gone by. I was amazed that no one had ever written a book-length account of it, and was fortunate to meet a number of pickers and buyers who allowed me into their world. Over the next few years I traveled from my home in Seattle as far north as Yukon Territory and, come winter, camped with pickers on the Lost Coast of California. I went to Oregon and British Columbia, to Michigan, Montana, Colorado, and New York City, among other places, to follow the invisible food chain from patch to plate. I got on "the mushroom trail" and embedded myself in a subculture that is, for better or worse, indelibly American.

The Mushroom Hunters is the result of thousands of hours spent with pickers, buyers, and chefs; hundreds of hours of taped interviews; and my own compulsion to weave this first-hand material into a narrative that readers can appreciate, whether or not they've ever tasted a wild mushroom or even taken a walk in the woods.

Here's what early readers are saying:

"With superb detail and intrepid research, Langdon Cook leads a fascinating trek deep into the mysterious world of mushroom hunting, blending intriguing natural history and quirky characters with insight into this murky, sometimes dangerous business. Riveting stuff for food lovers." —Kathleen Flinn, author of The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry

"A beautifully written portrait of the people who collect and distribute wild mushrooms, The Mushroom Hunters is food and nature writing at its finest. Langdon Cook’s descriptions are so visceral you can smell the mushrooms, the forests, the rain on every page. The book is full of telling anecdotes about a kind of American that is ingrained in our mythology, the frontiersman. Mushroom hunters are contemporary Davy Crocketts, living off the grid, in tune with nature, embodying the independent-mindedness that characterizes America. This is a terrific book." —Eugenia Bone, author of Mycophilia

"In these pages, you’ll meet America’s last nomads—mushroom hunters—in all their ragamuffin glory. Langdon Cook brings to life all of these individuals with the eyes, ears, and heart of a first-rate novelist. Open The Mushroom Hunters at any page, and you’ll be instantly transported to the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, you may even find yourself smelling of pine needles. The book will be a revelation for anyone who wonders how those morels or chanterelles end up at their favorite restaurant." —Lawrence Millman, author of Last Places

"The Mushroom Hunters is one of those very infrequent and wonderful books that change your way of looking at something you think you don't care about. Who knew the humble mushroom could be shot through with suspense? The way Langdon Cook writes about these delicious fungi—the excitement in the story of their capture; the flair of the telling—has me convinced I'd go pretty far out on the wire myself to get some." —Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life

"The Mushroom Hunters is like the forest itself—gems are hidden throughout. Langdon Cook captures the surreal and deeply flavorful world of North America’s wild fungi, the sub-culture that seeks them, and the thrill of the treasure hunt." —Jim Robbins, New York Times contributor and author of The Man Who Planted Trees

Pre-order The Mushroom Hunters:

Friday, May 3, 2013

Wild in the City

Becky Lerner's foraging education kicked off with a failed, week-long challenge to eat only what she could find around her Portland home. A few days into it, hungry and exhausted, having burned more calories than she'd taken in, Lerner accepted defeat and ordered a Thai dinner. Lucky for us, this was just the beginning and not the end of her foraging career. Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness is her account a wild odyssey amidst the bustle and clamor of the city, in which she would eventually become known as "the neighborhood herbalist," her office looking "more like an apothecary." In a series of vignettes that follows the arc of her learning curve, she details the many plant species she would learn to find and cook, along with her growing interest in medicinals and even the divine. "Everywhere we look, we see useful plants," she writes. "The Earth is full of medicine for the people, and it's available free of charge." Lerner and I recently talked about foraging, her new book, and the good qualities of Oregon grape.

FOTL: There's an element of Portlandia that runs through the book: we meet all kinds of eccentric characters—slackers, artists, seekers, people off the beaten path. Is this the new face of foraging, or is there a place at the table for the 9-to-5 office worker from Poughkeepsie?

Becky Lerner: I think foraging is for everybody. The reason my book has such colorful characters is because that's my world—I myself am kind of a colorful character, and like attracts like. I've always been drawn to unusual people, even when I was living in the very 9-to-5 world of suburban New Jersey. But it's true there is a higher density of eccentricity here in Portland, probably because this is a city that embraces uniqueness. That's a lot of why I moved here. I felt like I could fully be myself.

FOTL: Does it seem weird that foraging has an "alternative" vibe?

Lerner: It may be that people who are into alternative ways of relating to the world are more likely to try something adventurous and unusual, but certainly people of a broad range of ages and interests forage, from conservative country folks in the South to punks in Philly.

FOTL: Of course, foraging used to be mainstream. You write about the extensive foraging skills of native tribes in the Pacific Northwest, reminding readers that 25 percent of the pre-contact population was enslaved, and that the slaves did a lot of the heavy lifting. Do modern-day foragers tend to idealize the past?

Lerner: Foragers have a broad spectrum of beliefs, with maybe the only commonality being a respect for nature and an inclination toward adventure, so I wouldn't want to generalize. That said, I can tell you certainly I started out romanticizing hunter-gatherers and idealizing the past, and I have encountered some of the Pacific Northwest's radical ideologues, some of whom would identify themselves as anarcho-primitivists, who seem to do that, too. But then I started researching this book and learned that things are a lot more complicated than they might seem. Anthropologists have concluded that hunter-gatherers do tend to be healthier, happier, and less stressed than we agricultural people, and certainly it seems they have a more balanced and respectful and far less destructive relationship with nature, too. But food acquisition is only one aspect of a society. It doesn't tell you how it treats women, distributes resources, or resolves conflicts. People are complex and wonderful and imperfect all at once, and our societies reflect that.

FOTL: You say "it's easy to see why people evolved to be such social creatures." I've had this same light bulb go on during bouts of labor-intensive foraging, yet I routinely field questions or comments from those who I would categorize in the "survivalist" camp. They're more interested in going it alone and leaving society behind. What do you have to say to these folks?

Lerner: I notice that people tend to have different skills and talents, and that we tend to gravitate toward being in community and helping each other. I know a guy who loves making kayaks. I know someone else whose passion is sewing shoes. And I know another person who is an amazing chef. And I have met enthusiastic fisherwomen. And then there's me, and I really like being a storyteller, teacher, and healer. And you know, together, we all make a pretty great team. Why not embrace our natural proclivities? It may be less glorifying for the ego, but it's more fun, less stressful, and more efficient than trying to be a human Swiss army knife.

FOTL: We make preserves from Oregon grape, which my kids love on a classic PB&J, but after reading about your experiences using the root in a tincture, I'm ready to dig some up. Can you tell us a little more about the medicinal properties, the berberine in particular?

Lerner: Oregon grape, Mahonia aquifolium, has many medicinal properties, from stimulating digestive secretions to supporting liver detoxification. It's also a powerful herbal antibiotic that works against strep throat, staph infections, Giardia, E. Coli, pink eye, and many other common ailments, when taken internally or applied externally.

FOTL: What other medicinals do you recommend for the new initiate?

Lerner: Usnea lichen tincture works exceptionally well for respiratory ailments—I've seen it work wonders on people who had symptoms of pneumonia—and bearberry for urinary tract infections, which I have seen work miracles on people and dogs. Other medicinals to consider would be elder and yarrow flower for cold and flu and fever.

FOTL: What's next for you, in terms of both foraging and writing?

Lerner: Thanks for this question. I really enjoy teaching and speaking, and I'd like to travel around the country to do that. And I definitely see myself writing more books, but I don't yet have a subject in mind. As of the past year I've been on a Reiki journey and exploring more deeply the world of plant spirits, so it could go in that direction. Whatever it is will need to be an adventure! And an unusual one at that.

Lerner will be at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on May 8, 7 pm, to read from Dandelion Hunter and sign copies. To find out more about Lerner and book events near you, check out her blog, First Ways.