Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sichuan Pickled Fiddleheads with Ground Pork

The fiddlehead window is closing quick. Seems like they were up a week earlier than recent past seasons, and lowland ferns are mostly fronded out by now. I went higher to get my pickling supply, to about 2,000-ft elevation, and filled a 10-pound bag.

Most of these fiddleheads will be pickled either in an Asian refrigerator style that doesn't require processing (and maintains the bright green color) or this way. That is, once I get around to the odious task of cleaning them.

Some will get cooked too. Simply sautéed in butter is a good strategy. I also like my fiddleheads in Eastern preparations.

I've posted a number of Asian fiddlehead recipes over the years, two of my favorites being the above mentioned quick pickles and Sichuan dry-fried. The recipe here combines elements of both. I used Fuchsia Dunlop's pickling recipe and then stir-fried the pickled fiddleheads with a little ground pork, Sichuan peppercorns, and dried chile peppers (see Land of Plenty).

The result is easily my favorite new fiddlehead recipe.

First, you'll need to pickle some fiddleheads (a minimum half-pound) in the Sichuan style.

Sichuan Pickled Vegetables

1 quart-sized jar with lid
2 1/4 cup water
1/4 cup rock or sea salt
4 dried chiles
1/2 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 tsp rice wine
1/2 star anise
1 tbsp brown sugar
1-inch piece of unpeeled ginger
1/3 cinnamon stick
1 pound or more vegetables, such as string beans, slice carrot, daikon radish, etc.

1. Dissolve salt in boiling water and set aside to cool.

2. Add pickling spices to jar and add cooled water. Cover and shake to mix.

3. Fill jar with vegetables (e.g., fiddleheads), making sure brine covers them. Tighten lid and put aside in a cool, dark place for a minimum 24 hours; a week is better. You can continue to replenish the jar with vegetables by adding more salt, sugar, and wine.

Pickled Fiddleheads with Ground Pork

1/2 lb Sichuan pickled fiddleheads (see pickling recipe above)
1/4 lb ground pork
1/2 tsp rice wine
1/2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp peanut oil
3-4 dried chiles, halved and deseeded
1/2 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns

1. Mix pork with rice wine, soy sauce, and salt in a small bowl.

2. Add 1 tbsp oil to wok over high heat until smoking. Add pork and stir-fry until dry and crumbly, a few minutes. Return meat to bowl.

3. Add 1 tbsp oil to wok over medium heat and quickly stir-fry Sichuan peppercorns and chiles until fragrant, careful not to burn, less than a minute. Add pickled fiddleheads and cooked pork into wok and continue stir-frying another couple minutes. Fiddleheads should remain tightly scrolled; serve before they start to unwind in the wok.

Serves 2 with another dish and rice, or 4 with a few additional dishes.

The other day I stir-fried some fresh fiddleheads in a very different Sichuan preparation, one relying on what is known as a fragrant fermented sauce (based on the mixture of sweet bean paste and soy sauce). This sauce is especially good with a simple stir-fry of beef or pork slivers with thinly sliced bell pepper, a popular dish all over Sichuan Province.

For my improvised version (see above), I stir-fried pressed seasoned tofu cut into cubes along with the fiddleheads, thin-sliced rounds of carrot, and flowering chives cut into 3-inch sections. It was delicious, but now I understand why the fragrant fermented sauce is most frequently encountered with slivers of meat and vegetables. Because of the large and varying shapes of my ingredients, rather than bathed in a comforting brown gravy, they were spotted with oily blots and most of the sauce drained to the bottom of the dish in a dark slick.

At least I have plenty of fiddleheads on hand to continue my experiments with this fleeting taste of spring.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Oyster Mushroom Udon

Oyster mushrooms are popping left and right in my habitat. I found little ones just emerging in the Cascade foothills a few weeks ago and a mature cluster soon after that closer to sea level in Seattle. Since then it's been an oyster fest.

In the Pacific Northwest, look for oyster mushrooms in riparian areas on dead hardwoods, notably alder and cottonwood (the host tree may be different elsewhere). Downed trees are a good bet, but oysters will also grow on standing trees, sometimes high enough off the ground to require a fireman's ladder. What? You don't have one of those? Best look on fallen logs then.

I find most of my oysters while taking low-elevation hikes in spring. Keep your eyes peeled year-round, though, because the fruiting window for oysters is wider than most other species. I'll find perfect specimens in the heat of summer and late in the fall. And remember those spots; they can reappear same time next year for several years running.

Udon is an ideal vehicle for wild mushrooms, especially oysters. The dashi broth, with its main ingredients of kombu (dried kelp) and katsuobushi (bonito flakes), might be the most famous example of umami in action. Now add some sautéed oyster mushrooms to the broth and you're unlocking doors to very deep taste pleasures.

I've said it before, but let's say it together: fish and fungi go together. 

4 cups dashi *
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp mirin
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
12 oz udon noodles
1 green onion, thinly sliced
1 handful oyster mushrooms, sautéed
cooking oil
fish cake (optional)
Shichimi tōgarashi (optional)

1. In a pot combine dashi broth*, soy, mirin, sugar, and salt. Bring to boil and lower heat.

2. Cook udon noodles separately according to instructions, drain, and rinse with cold water. I use frozen udon that comes in individual serving sizes, with several servings to a package.

3. Saute oyster mushrooms in a little oil (I used a mix of canola and sesame).

4. Ladle udon and broth into bowls. Garnish with sautéed oyster mushrooms, green onion, and optional toppings, such as fish cake. Season with a sprinkling of Shichimi tōgarashi if you like.

Serves 2

* Dashi Broth

Find dashi ingredients at your local Asian grocer. You can use dashi packets for convenience, but avoid the powders. Or make your own broth with instructions below:

4 1/2 cups water
20 grams kombu (dried kelp)
2 loose cups (about 25 grams) katsuobushi (bonito flakes)

1. Soak kombu in cold water for minimum 15 minutes.

2. After soaking, heat water until nearly boiling. Turn off heat and remove kombu. Stir in katsuobushi and steep for 10 minutes.

3. Pour broth through a fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth or paper towel. Save kombu and katsuobushi to make a second dashi broth, known as niban-dashi, which is especially useful for miso soup.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Halibut with Nettle Sauce, Peas & Miner's Lettuce

I love this time of year. The woods are greening up, robins wake me before dawn, and wild foods are everywhere for the harvesting. Last week I found a clutch of fresh young oyster mushrooms sprouting on an alder; the other day I found another bunch in full fruition that was ready for picking. Fiddleheads are up, miner's lettuce is carpeting the ground, and stinging nettles are everywhere.

The miner's lettuce I used for this recipe is growing in a nice urban patch not far from my Seattle home. This is Claytonia perfoliata, not to be confused with the more common variety in Puget Sound, Siberian miner's lettuce, Claytonia sibirica. A few leaves scattered on the plate lend a sharp green note, while spring peas add texture. I like to use fresh shelling peas if possible, but frozen baby peas will do in a pinch. The sauce is quick and easy if you happen to have stinging nettle pesto on hand; I always have some frozen at the ready.

Stinging Nettle Sauce

2 cubes frozen stinging nettle pesto, defrosted
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp diced shallot
1/2 cup heavy cream

1. Saute shallot in butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat.

2. Stir in stinging nettle pesto.

3. Lower heat and whisk in cream. Thicken to desired consistency, adding more cream if necessary.

For the final dish, ladle stinging nettle sauce and cooked peas into a shallow bowl. Plate pan-fried halibut fillet (see my friend Hank Shaw's tutorial for pan-searing fish) over sauce and garnish with miner's lettuce leaves. This recipe will make enough sauce for 2.

If you've put up quantities of stinging nettles and have some nettle pesto in the freezer, this is a fast restaurant-style meal. The pesto is also ideal for serving kids a quick and healthy pasta too.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Razor Clam Ceviche

The second annual Razor Clam Hootenanny, in association with the Bainbridge Island Parks & Rec outdoor program, was a huge success. Twenty eager students gathered last weekend at a sprawling house on Mockrocks Beach to dig clams and feast on the bounty. Because of the spring tide change, we were able to bookend an evening dig on Saturday with a Sunday morning dig for maximum limit action. Many of us nabbed clams on Friday evening as well. A three-dig limit of 45 mossbacks makes for a full bag o' clams!

***UPDATE*** Here's some video of the action from the Kitsap Sun.

The digging on Saturday evening was a little more challenging than either Friday evening or Sunday morning. Heavy surf meant the clams weren't showing like usual, and regular rogue waves had clammers scrambling for high ground. Still, we got our clams, and some of us learned that it's not always like shooting tuna in a can. I welcome these tough conditions because they force the clammer to hone her abilities and develop a sharp eye for even the most cryptic of shows.

Saturday night's feast was epic, with two varieties of New England Clam Chowder (one, my grandmother's recipe, with bacon, thyme, and a thin milky broth; the other thick and creamy with celery); a ceviche with razors, cod, and shrimp; panko-fried razors; and a hearty Pasta alle Vongole. We had the kind folks from Treveri Cellars on hand pouring their excellent bubbly and John Adams of Sound Fresh Clams & Oysters was shuckin' and jivin' as he produced platter after platter of Skookum Point Olys, Kumamotos, and Pacific oysters.

It was a boisterous, fun-loving crowd, and the pre-dawn wake-up call for one more dig on Sunday morning was not without its difficulties.


While in New York City recently I had a good meal at a new place in Soho called Charlie Bird. One of the standouts was a razor clam ceviche. The Atlantic razor clam, Ensis directus, is very different in appearance from our beefy West Coast variety, Siliqua patula, and more deserving of the name. They're smaller, and quite long and thin—like the straight razor of old. The ceviche came prepared on several clam shells. It was unmixed, with each ingredient—pickled peppers, onion, and so on—in colorful little piles. You were meant to slurp it all together in one bite like an oyster.

Such a presentation is difficult with our big local razors (see top photo), since it's more than a mouthful, but there's no reason why we can't use the shell as a serving dish, or even mix up the ingredients at table right in the shell.

I don't see West Coast razors as ceviche often, whereas it seems to be all the rage right now on the East Coast. Maybe this is because of the presence of domoic acid, a naturally occurring marine toxin in the Pacific (and the inspiration for Hitchcock's The Birds) that can cause shellfish amnesiac poisoning and even death in high doses. The thing is, this toxin can't be cooked out of razor clams, so there's no difference between fried razors and ceviche with regard to domoic acid. Thankfully, state fish & wildlife departments carefully monitor the health of our shellfish.

This recipe is Japan Goes South of the Border. I use only the clam siphons as I prefer to save my diggers (the razor clam's tender foot) for fried clams; besides, the siphon has a snappiness that's perfect for ceviche. The amounts below are estimates; depends on the size of your clams and vegetables, and besides, with a little common sense it shouldn't be too hard to figure out the right proportions. You can easily halve it for a smaller batch.

1 dozen razor clam siphons, cleaned and diced
2-3 cloves garlic, diced
1 small red pepper, diced
2-3 jalapeño peppers, diced
1/2 small red onion, diced
large handful cilantro, chopped
2 limes
rice vinegar
tortillas, warmed
avocado, sliced
salt and pepper

1. Squeeze limes and mix juice with diced razor clams and garlic in a small non-reactive bowl. Season with salt and pepper plus a good splash of aji-mirin to taste and set aside. A general rule of thumb for ceviche is 1/2 cup citrus juice per pound of fish.

2. Cover diced red onion with rice vinegar and set aside. Chop together jalapeño pepper and cilantro if presenting ceviche unmixed.

3. Refrigerate at least an hour, preferably several hours.

4. Serve, mixed or unmixed, in razor clam shells or a small bowl with warm tortillas and avocado. Serves 4.

I have to say, this was easily one of the best ceviches I've ever had. Razor clams have a pleasing al dente texture. Steeped in the acidic lime juice, their flavor mellows, and aji-mirin adds a perfect finish. I'll be making razor clam ceviche after every dig from now on.