Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Saskatoon Berry Sauce

In eastern Washington, wild Saskatoons (Amelanchier alnifolia)—aka western serviceberry, shadbush, and juneberry—grow near the extensive orchards of cherries, apples, and pears that follow the river valleys. The Wenatchee River corridor near Leavenworth is loaded with Saskatoons, and it's interesting to see how this free food is all but ignored while the domesticated fruit trees are bombed with pesticides, tended to by an underclass of migrant workers out of Mexico, and fawned over by tourists.

The other day I picked a good quantity of Saskatoons in view of the orchards while passing motorists wondered what the heck this crazy guy was up to. The paradoxes of modern food culture pile up on our plates...

A Saskatoon sauce is just the thing this time of year to dress up a scoop of good vanilla ice cream. Or you can add some vinegar and herbs to make a savory sauce. Most of the recipes you'll find online are too sweet and use corn starch as a thickener. Don't follow the herd! The berries are plenty sweet on their own, and they'll thicken into a nice sauce with a little extra simmer time and whisking. For a dessert sauce I also like to add a little lemon zest in addition to the juice. Remember that these berries have noticeable seeds. The seeds add a nutty dimension to the flavor, but if you're picky about your texture, you can cook this sauce down (with more time and water) and run it through a food mill or strainer.

2 cups Saskatoon berries
1 cup water
1/4 cup sugar, or to taste
2 tbsp lemon juice
lemon zest, to taste

Bring the berries and water to boil in a sauce pan. Reduce heat and simmer for several minutes. Whisk in sugar, lemon juice, and zest. Continue to simmer and whisk until sauce is thickened to taste. Add more water if necessary.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Thinking Outside the (Recipe) Box

When friends from out of town come to visit, I often take them to Lark, John Sundstrom's Seattle restaurant, which is celebrating a decade of good food this year.

I've been eating at Lark since it opened in 2003. The launch party for my first book, Fat of the Land, was at Lark. John made a porcini crostini (photo here, at top) that night that continues to be one of my go-to apps for dinner parties: sliced baguette rubbed with garlic and topped with a mixture of ricotta cheese and roasted porcini mushrooms, with a sprinkling of sea salt. That simple dish in many ways encapsulates John's philosophy: a fresh ingredient foraged locally and allowed to shine.

John has now put this philosophy on paper (or your device screen, as the case may be) with his new book, Lark: Cooking Against the Grain. It's a big, beautifully photographed book, with many of John's signature recipes from the restaurant, such as his Farro and Wild Mushrooms and Geoduck Ceviche. The focus is unabashedly Pacific Northwest, with an emphasis on local producers and wild foods.

The book is organized around three "seasons," which John refers to as mist (November to March), evergreen (April to July), and bounty (August to October). During the mist season you might want to be acquainted with Scallops Choucroute with Ham Hock and Pickled Mustard Seeds. Evergreen brings forth Sunchoke Soup and a hearty dish of Rabbit with Morels, Favas and Emmer Pappardelle. And bounty is a colorful Sockeye Salmon with Corn, Bacon and Lobster Mushrooms followed by a Black Fig Tarte Tatin, among many other treats of the harvest season.

John admits in his introduction that some of the recipes included aren't dumbed-down versions, so he's also produced an inexpensive iPad app that includes color, step-by-step photos to go with each recipe.

This is food that celebrates a sense of place. If spot shrimp or spiced apple cake make you swoon, you'll want to dig into Lark: Cooking Against the Grain. As John says, the book is "about living the good life in the Pacific Northwest."

To learn more about chef John Sundstrom and his food, see his talk "Thinking Outside the (Recipe) Box" this Friday night at Seattle's Central Library, 7 p.m., presented in partnership with Elliott Bay Books.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

New Web Site

Dear Readers: Please visit and bookmark my new web site, LangdonCook.com.

The site, though still in its first iteration and without any fancy design, is a big improvement on the blog in several respects. It now gathers together in one place information on foraging and cooking classes, writing workshops, talks and lecturesbooks, and other stuff—plus it has a complete archive of the Fat of the Land blog.

I've also been putting together photo galleries to highlight images from a variety of wild food preparations; my popular shellfish classes; and a sampling of photos that will accompany slideshow presentations for The Mushroom Hunters.

You can subscribe to blog posts (click link and see right column) and in the future I plan to add a newsletter with updates about classes and events.

I'll continue to cross-post all blog entries at both LangdonCook.com and Fat of the Land in the near future, but the web site will be the dedicated web address for the long haul.

Hope to see you over there!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Marvelous Morels

It's been a good year for morels throughout much of the country, though your own mileage may vary. I picked my first "naturals" in the third week in April and the action in Washington State hasn't slowed since. 

Mushroom hunters across North America have had a chance to put new names to several familiar faces this spring. Last year, in the September-October issue of Mycologia, Michael Kuo et al proposed a revision to morel taxonomy that added a number of new species to the lineup. (An identification key can be found here.) For the first time, those of us in the West could reliably identify our beloved natural black morel as Morchella snyderi, with its habitat in unburned forest, lacunose stem, and black ridges on the cap. Another not-so-scientific identifying feature that I use, especially in areas where naturals and burn morels are in close proximity, is feel: naturals are noticeably cool to the touch.

We've also seen fair numbers of that confounding morel, the "mountain blond," found in unburned western montane forests of mixed fir and pine (a commercial hunter I know insists that ponderosa must be present nearby to find this mushroom). Some years we get very few, for reasons that are not readily apparent, and their fruiting tends to be in scattered locales. Mountain blonds have the same coloration as yellow morels (i.e. Morchella esculentoides), but their morphology is more akin to black morels; turns out they're part of the black morel group (or clade), a taxonomic revelation that didn't surprise anyone who works with these mushrooms from year to year. While they're one of our most beautiful morels, sadly, their flavor in the pan is less than striking. In the new classification, they carry the apt name Morchella frustrata.

In addition to the naturals, mushroom hunters in the Pacific Northwest have benefitted from the region's fire ecology, with a number of last year's burns producing decent—if not epic—morel picking across eastern Washington and Idaho. So far the biggest of them all, the 45,000-acre Table Mountain complex, has proved something of a bust. Never have so many footsteps yielded so few mushrooms. This burn is getting stomped by a stampede of both commercial and recreational pickers, and the lower elevation habitat never had a chance to take off with so much pressure. Hopefully the crowds will thin as more ground becomes available in Idaho and elsewhere and we'll have a decent pick on top at higher elevation. Meanwhile, the mushroom hunter using strategery has done well in a host of smaller burns.

Anyone with experience picking burn morels knows there are lots of different looking species that emerge from the ash, especially in the greater Pacific Northwest. How many of these are different enough in their DNA to warrant species status remains to be seen. So far we have Morchella sextelata and M. septimelata, which are apparently impossible to separate without a microscope, plus M. capitata, told by its chambered stem, and the visibly distinctive "gray" or "fuzzyfoot" morel, M. tomentosa. The latter is perhaps the most coveted morel by chefs in the know; large and beefy, it's one of the last of the burn morels to show and is just getting started where I've been hunting. There are others. A morel that looks just like the mountain blond, M. frustrata, appears sparingly in burns as well. And then there's the banana...and the greenie...

Morels pair especially well with seafood. The dish pictured at top and bottom is pan-seared sea scallops with fingerling potatoes and sautéed morels in a green pea sauce. A simple and elegant way to enjoy one of the fleeting culinary treasures of spring.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Salmon Head Curry

A hard-won spring chinook salmon is so tasty it would be a crime to leave any scraps of meat uneaten. This spicy Indian curry will have you reconsidering what you do with those leftover salmon heads. Crab bait? I think not...

Salmon heads of all species have plenty of choice bits, including the cheeks and collars. Soup is a popular way to use them. Like whole spot shrimp in the shell, salmon heads can both flavor a stock and add a surprisingly large amount of meat to the meal—and with the help of a fine mesh strainer, you don't have to stare your catch in the face. But you can also simmer the head in a curry and then lift it out before serving to your more squeamish guests, returning all the fall-off-the-skull meat to the dish, with nary an eyeball in sight.

Fish Head Curry is a popular dish in southern India and elsewhere on the subcontinent and Asia. Recipes for fish curry powder are as varied and fought over as red sauces for pasta. You can mix up your own or use a prepared blend. If the latter, make sure you choose a reputable brand with fresh, pungent spices (it won't be cheap).

I picked a middle path, using a ready-made curry powder but also spiking the dish with fresh turmeric, fenugreek, black mustard, chili powder, and cumin seeds. I encourage my readers to try this curry. You'll never toss another salmon head. And the crabs can eat chicken gizzards!

1 medium to large salmon head, gills removed and cut in half
1 tsp black mustard seed (or yellow)
1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp fenugreek seed
3 tbsp peanut oil
1 tsp red chili powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 - 3 tbsp fish curry powder*
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 thumb ginger, peeled and minced
2 sweet onions, thinly sliced
1 tbsp tamarind paste, mixed with 1/2 cup water **
2 Asian eggplant, cut into 3-inch pieces
1 zucchini, cut into 3-inch pieces
3 tomatoes, cut into sixths
1 cup coconut cream
1 tbsp brown sugar, or to taste
2 tbsp fish sauce, or to taste
cilantro for garnish

* Make your own fish curry powder, or visit an Indian grocery or spice shop for a prepared blend.
** Available at Asian market or Indian grocery.

1. Mix chili powder, turmeric, and fish curry powder with a little water to make a thick masala paste.

2. Heat oil in heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add mustard seed, cumin seed, and fenugreek seed and sauté until they begin to crackle and pop, about a minute.

3. Add masala paste, stirring, until fragrant, another minute or so. Add garlic, ginger, and onions, and cook together until onions are soft.

4. Pour in tamarind mixture and bring to boil. Add tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini. Cook a couple minutes before adding both halves of salmon head. (Add more water if necessary, though note that the vegetables and fish will add to liquid as they cook.) Spoon curry over salmon, reduce heat to medium-low, and cover for 5 minutes.

5. Stir in coconut cream, brown sugar, and fish sauce, careful not to disturb fish. Cook another couple minutes until fish is done yet still tender. At this point, if you're serving squeamish guests, you can separate the salmon meat from the skin and cartilage. Maybe leave in one eyeball for a lucky diner. Garnish with fresh cilantro.