Monday, December 28, 2009


I'm not much for New Year's resolutions. Most of them don't take, and resolving to do better can be decided any day of the year.

But I'll go ahead and make one anyway. See that scrumptious meal above? That's Seared Duck over Squash and Sage Risotto. Easily one of my more memorable meals of 2009. Normally you wouldn't find it on this blog. You see, it doesn't contain a shred of foraged foods. Nada. The duck was farm-raised and I didn't resort to any trickery—for instance, ladling porcini-infused broth into the risotto—to post it here.

Instead, I reference this meal as a challenge to myself. I'm an omnivore and don't intend to change that. In other words, I eat meat, if only occasionally and mostly in small portions. Over the years I've made incursions into the Animal Kingdom with my foraging: free-diving for Dungeness crabs, digging razor clams, fly-fishing for salmon, spear-fishing lingcod. Always the animals have been of the fish or shellfish sort.

Mark 2010 as the year I get other kinds of meat, the furred and feathered kinds. It's time to up the irons on this foraging thing!


Big thank-yous to everyone who participated in Menu for Hope. The winners will be announced in January. Until then, Happy New Year to all!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Win a Day of Foraging with Yours Truly

Season's greetings everyone! Have you heard about Menu for Hope?

Menu for Hope, the brainchild of Pim over at Chez Pim, raises money to help feed people in disadvantaged parts of the world. For the past few years the money raised has gone to the UN World Food Programme, the largest food aid agency in the world, working in over 75 countries. This year funds raised will go to support a new initiative called Purchase for Progress, which enables smallholder and low-income farmers to supply food to the UN global food operations. Rather than just distributing food, this program empowers participants to become self-reliant.

Here's how Menu for Hope works: Food bloggers around the world are offering goods and services which you can bid on. Each $10 donation earns you a raffle ticket for the item of your choice. The more you donate, the greater your chances of winning. If you donate $50, you can select five different items, or you can put all five raffle tickets toward the same item, increasing your chances. Winners are selected at random, and notified in January.

At Fat of the Land we're offering a morning or afternoon of foraging in the Seattle area. We could bushwhack through woods in search of edible fungi...or dig clams at the coast...or pick huckleberries in the mountains... The choice is yours. To bid on this item, select UW40.

Directions for bidding:

1. Choose a bid item or bid items of your choice from our Menu for Hope main bid item list.

2. Go to the donation site at Firstgiving and make a donation.

3. Please specify which bid item you'd like in the 'Personal Message' section in the donation form when confirming your donation. You must write-in how many tickets per bid item, and please use the bid item code.

Each $10 you donate will give you one raffle ticket toward a bid item of your choice. For example, a donation of $50 can be 2 tickets for UW01 and 3 tickets for UW33.

4. If your company matches your charity donation, please check the box and fill in the information so we can claim the corporate match.

5. Please check the box to allow us to see your e-mail address so that we can contact you in case you win. Your e-mail address will not be shared with anyone.

Thank you and happy holidays!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Food Photography

Yesterday I was talking to an experienced photographer and asked him to rank the most important factors in taking a good shot. At the top of his list was light; composition came second. This was very interesting to me. My own ranking had those two reversed, with composition as number one. I suspect there are many of us amateurs out there who would like to believe that composition can trump all else, that those of us with a capable eye can frame a photo just so to make a good shot no matter what the light conditions.

Is this just my romantic notion of the artist? Certainly it's true that poor light conditions can flummox professionals, while really good light can make even amateurs such as myself seem competent. Somehow I'd like to think that an inspired shooter can get it done even in the basest of conditions. But my friend's point remains: Light is king.

Last week I took a half-day food photography workshop organized by Seattle Bon Vivant and taught by Penny de los Santos, who takes pictures for Saveur, National Geographic, and other magazines with exceptionally demanding photo editors. The workshop was held at Spring Hill restaurant in West Seattle, and over the course of four hours we looked at slides, talked shop, and photographed dishes prepared by the staff (including the four photos in this post, my best of the day). Penny went over basics such as light source, angle, styling, and so on, but it was her off-the-cuff remarks that really made an impression on me. For instance, Penny doesn't use a tripod. And because she's often on the road with limited kit and time to fuss around, her go-to lens is a zoom.

Well, both these facts fly in the face of what I've read in the past about how to take good photographs of food. With all the talk of tripods, you'd think you were committing a serious photographic sin without one, yet in Penny's words: "I just hold my breath and shoot." After all, how else are you going to get several different angles in a short time-span before the food dies on the plate? Also, because she uses only natural light (with the added aid of reflectors and diffusers), she must be ready to move quickly with a sudden shift in the clouds—or, if you're shooting in Seattle in the dead of winter, those few hours of workable daylight.

As for the debate over fixed lens vs. zoom—just look at Penny's photos and you'll be persuaded that it's possible to take a good shot with the latter, albeit a very nice and very expensive zoom lens. In short, don't be afraid to break the so-called rules.

The last nugget of wisdom I want to pass along is this. When I told Penny a little bit about what I do, she immediately got excited about the possibilities of taking pictures of landscapes, people working in the outdoors, the tools and implements of the forager. She was thinking about wild food foraging from a more journalistic viewpoint. Here at FOTL I see a lot more of those sorts of photos when I scroll back to the earliest days of this blog. More recently I've concentrated almost entirely on the plated food. This is in part because I was finally able to get some half-decent food photographs after bumping up to a DSLR a year ago. It's also due to the fact that much of my readership—much of the food blog readership at large—seems to be drawn to beautiful pictures of food.

I want to keep working on my food photos, but I think I'll try to capture more of the visual narrative in the future. The people, places, and stories. Oh, and no more cheating with automatic settings. It's all manual from here on out.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Magic Mushrooms?

Here at FOTL Headquarters we're mostly into outdoor fun, good eats, and wild foods that have more than merely survival appeal. True, we've been known to expound on the nutritional benefits of weeds and concoct the occasional tonic, but we leave the wild medicinal trade to those herbalists, shamans, witchdoctors, and other alternative health practitioners who supposedly know what they're doing.

However, like the law, there is a time to take one's own personal health and well-being into one's own hands. And so it is with my ornery lower spine, specifically the troublesome connector at L5-S1. That's the vertebra where your lumbar and sacrum meet, an intersection of misery for many a modern human that has come down from the trees only to sit at a desk or drive a car. Mine's been hassling me for about five years now and I'm looking at drastic measures, though before such measures can be implemented I'm going to try one last crazy off-the-wall treatment...

...a drop of fly agaric for what ails me. Also known by it's scientific name, Amanita muscaria, this totemic toadstool from temperate woodlands around the globe was called "fly agaric" by the Romans for its use to ward off winged pests. It hails from the dreaded Amanita genus, home to the most deadly mushrooms in the world, such as the death cap (Amanita phalloides) and destroying angel (Amanita bisporigera et al).

The fly agaric isn't deadly poisonous except in the largest doses, but it packs a wallop just the same, a hallucinogenic brain warp that is said to have inspired Lewis Carroll to send Alice down the rabbit hole. Accounts vary. Some have reported transcendent spiritual experiences, others talk of nightmarish fits and vomiting. A forager friend of mine believes the North American variety doesn't contain enough pyschoactive ingredients to do much at all.

I write about this beautiful mushroom's sketchy history in my book. Quickly: Its psychoactive compounds have been known for millennia and nomadic Siberian tradesman reputedly ate the mushroom for the buzz when their beloved vodka was in short supply. Their reindeer ate it too, and both parties apparently ate the yellow snow around them that contained traces of the excreted drug. More than a few ethnobotanists have suggested that certain forms of Christmas iconography might derive from this behavior: jolly man dressed in red, flying reindeer, and so on.

As for me, my interest was piqued after reading this page on Henriette's Herbal pages. According to Henriette: just rub "2-3 drops of tincture on the spine, when sciatica hits. Relief is pretty much instant." She posits that the tincture "relaxes the muscles around the spine, where the hurt comes from, and when those muscles are finally allowed to relax they stop clamping bone all over the pinched nerve, which means the nerve can finally relax."

I've made my tincture according to the instructions, first chopping up a bunch of nice Amanita muscaria buttons, then packing them into a half-pint canning jar and covering with vodka.

So, dear readers, should I go ahead and try a topical application the next time I feel stabbing pain down my left leg? What do you think?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Farro with Porcini, Chanterelles & Mascarpone

What the heck is farro, you ask? It's an ancient form of hulled wheat that's low-yielding and similar to barley or wheat-berries in texture, and despite being in vogue of late, farro is actually among the oldest of agricultural products. It was first domesticated nearly 10,000 years ago in the Near East, most likely in present-day Turkey. Today it is eaten more in Itlay than anywhere else, and in the mountainous regions of The Boot there are no fewer than three closely related relict grains commonly referred to as farro: emmer, spelt, and einkorn. Apparently these hard-scrabble grains make a good crop for highlands and poor soils.

My first taste of farro was at Lark restaurant in Seattle several years ago. Lark uses a local variety grown and packaged by Bluebird Grain Farms in the Methow Valley of Eastern Washington, a Shangri-La on the dry side of the Cascade Mountains known for its excellent backpacking, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing. Bluebird's farro of choice is emmer (Triticum dicoccum).

They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, which means the kitchen is a place of nearly constant praise. Most home cooks I know, myself included, spend the majority of their time either trying to perfect recipes out of a book or web site, or trying to recreate memorable meals they've enjoyed at restaurants. We leave the truly creative work to the pros and hope to capture a little of their light from time to time—such as the other night, when I finally got around to imitating John Sundstrom's creamy farro dish that I've ordered countless times at Lark. It's a simple dish. Farro is combined with sauteed wild mushrooms and a healthy dollop of mascarpone to give it the creamy unctuousness that has you coming back for more. Yet within that simplicity there is a wide range of skill required to properly cook both the grain and the fungi.

I often hear would-be mycophagists complaining about their chanterelles turning slimy with cooking. This is a rookie mistake and can be solved with one easy reminder (provided the chanties aren't water-logged): never crowd chanterelles in the pan. For most recipes you want to cook the water out of the mushrooms. A good saute pan heated with a little butter or oil is up to the task—just don't try to cook too many at once. When they've expelled their water, the mushrooms can continue to brown in the pan provided there's enough surface area for the water to evaporate. This also helps concentrate their flavor.

These particular chanterelles, both white and golden, came from a recent trip to the Rogue River Canyon in southwestern Oregon. Other wild mushrooms work just as well. At Lark I've had the dish with hedgehogs, yellowfoots, and black trumpets. Sometimes John adds a vegetable to it such as green beans for a dash of color and added texture. Word on the commercial street is that it was a poor chanterelle harvest this year. Maybe so, but it's also been a long harvest. Normally by Thanksgiving week Seattle would have had several hard frosts and the chanterelles—except for those in the most favorable of microclimates—would be returning to the earth. Instead they keep fruiting across much of their usual low-elevation habitat. I'm not opposed.

As for the farro, I only have this one episode under my belt so I'm hardly qualified to instruct, but it would seem that one has a wide range of mouth feel to work with when cooking this whole grain, not to mention ample time. Add more water and cooking time if you prefer a softer, more yielding bite. You can also soak the grain overnight.

1 cup farro
3 cups warm water
1-2 oz dried porcini, pulverized (optional)
4 oz mascarpone
1/2 lb chanterelles, chopped
2 tbsp butter
1 clove garlic, minced
salt & pepper

I don't know whether John uses porcini dust in his version but my feeling is that the essence of edulis improves just about any hearty dish in the dark months.

1. Reconstitute the porcini in 3 cups of warm water. Set aside for 10 minutes.
2. Pour porcini water in pot, salt the water, and bring to boil. Add farro, lower heat to simmer and cook until water is gone, about 40 minutes. Farro should be al dente yet tender. You can add more or less water and cook until desired softness. There's a lot of leeway and personal preference with farro.
3. Saute chanterelles for several minutes in butter in a large skillet, or in batches. Avoid slimy chanterelles by not crowding. You want the mushrooms to be lightly browned and firm.
4. Stir mascarpone into farro, then stir in most of chanterelles, reserving some as garnish. Season and garnish with chopped chives or parsley.

We served the farro with sauteed kale from the garden and sliced Steak au Poivre. The steak was organic and grass-fed, with a single 8-ounce New York strip plenty enough to feed two of us along with the other sides. A bottle of cabernet completed the meal.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Going Rogue

Every year in mid-November I help my friend Bradley close up his cabin near the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon. The Rogue is one of only a handful of coastal rivers that can boast a significant roadless section, in this case a 30-plus mile stretch of river that flows through the Congressionally designated Wild & Scenic lower canyon and the adjacent Rogue River Wilderness. It's rugged country filled with bears, cougars, hermits, and goldpanners. After the chores are attended to, we hike the trails, fish for steelhead, hunt mushrooms, and whump up big meals on the wood stove.

This annual trip is pretty much the capper on my year of wild food foraging.

Long Live the Queen

I don't get many opportunities to pick queen boletes (Boletus regineus). They're most often found in mixed woodlands of the coastal mountains to the south of me, in Northern California and Southern Oregon, particularly the lower elevations where tanoak thrives and puts the hurt on anyone hoping to bushwhack around those river valleys below snowline. I've never found them in Washington, probably because I rarely encounter tanoak here.

Besides habitat, the best way to distinguish the king and queen in the field is cap color (see photo at right). Queen boletes will have darker caps at maturation, sometimes a rich mahogany brown, and the younger specimens, while often lacking dark caps at this stage, will frequently have a whitish bloom across the cap that can be rubbed off with your finger. They're generally smaller than kings too.

One of the cool things about the queen is that it fruits later than the king, at least where I pick it, and often in troops, so you can still get fresh porcini even after the kings have gone to dirt. Our queen is not the same species as the one found in the Old World. That's Boletus aereus, which by all accounts rivals Boletus edulis, the king, for its porcini flavor and aroma. Boletus regineus is similar with its dark brown cap but tastes milder. On the plus side, the flesh is white and firm like the king yet often lacks the insect infestations of its more heralded partner in royalty.

We ate the queen with steak one night and sauteed it up with black trumpets another night to serve over crackers.

Blow Your Horn

Speaking of black trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides), this is another species I only see in the Rogue. We never find large quantities, just enough to savor that wonderful woodsy, almost smoky flavor. Northern California is the strike zone for the trumpet. I've heard professional foragers reminisce about enormous patches in the hills just inland from the Pacific.

Supposedly there are a few patches of well-guarded trumpets in Washington but I've never found them. Instead I look to the Rogue each year to satisfy my craving. Sometimes we get just a taste that must last us through the year.

"They're not big, but they don't know it."

The owner of the Silver Sedge Fly Shop told me that years ago when I stopped in to buy some fly-tying materials. He was talking about immature steelhead that probe the lower Rogue River before dropping back into the salt to finish their growth. Known as "half-pounders" to locals, these torpedo-shaped flashes of silver average 12 to 15 inches yet attack flies with the hellbent abandon of much larger fish and they're a hoot on light fly gear.

As in previous years, I took a single hatchery half-pounder home to share with the family so they could get a taste of the Rogue. The other fish, most of them wild, were released back into the drink.

You betcha.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Spiced Up Take-Out

Chinese take-out. It's one of the great pleasures in life, especially if the take-out is good and cheap. I've got a favorite Szechuan joint not too far from home. It sits nearly anonymously on the edge of the International District in an uninspiring little strip mall called "Asian Plaza." The restaurant's name is equally original: Szechuan Cuisine. Before it was remodeled it didn't even have a recognizable name, just a bunch of faded Chinese characters strewn haphazardly above the door.

Those faded characters seemed like a good omen to a bunch of us wandering around looking for lunch one day more than a decade ago. By our third or fourth trip we were calling it The House, as in: "Should we pay a visit to The House today?" There was no denying it was the go-to lunch spot for a bunch of us who worked together, our house lunch establishment. You could order 25 pot-stickers for $3.50. Prices have gone up since then. Now you get 20 pot-stickers for $4.95.

The House is known for its Hot Pot but usually we order more obvious stuff like Ants on a Tree or Twice Cooked Pork. I'm a sucker for the salty-sweet nothings of the General Tso-ish Manadarin Spicy Chicken, and the Garlic Beef makes other versions seem pedestrian at best.

Rather than get bogged down in the kitchen this Halloween Eve, Marty and I wanted to watch some scary movies with the kids and eat popcorn and candy. The House to the rescue! But this time I had a little home-made treat to spruce up our plates of take-out: Szechuan Pickled Fungi & Vegetables.

The fungi were cauliflower mushrooms (Sparassis radicata) picked near the Columbia River Gorge a few weeks ago. While driving from a book reading in Hood River to the Wordstock Lit Fest in Portland I stopped off in the hills above the Gorge to go for a hike. The trail contoured across a steep pitch shaded by old-growth fir and hemlock. Horses had been on it recently. I didn't expect to see much in the way of mushrooms along this rather dry section of trail, but a mile or so in I came across my first cauliflower mushrooms of the year, a pair of recently emerged specimens of average size, each one weighing a few pounds.

Cauliflowers are delicious mushrooms and they can be huge. A few years ago someone brought a 50-pound cauliflower to the Puget Sound Mycological Society's annual exhibit. The mushroom boasts a nutty flavor and firm texture that doesn't soften with cooking like so many other species. Even after braising in a stew for an hour they remain al dente, which is a good way to describe the texture since this mushroom resembles nothing so much as a bowl full of cooked egg noodles. Its wavy protrusions and deep clefts are expert at trapping duff and forest debris, making the cauliflower one of the more difficult mushrooms to clean. Worms like them too. The trick, as with so many tasty mushrooms, is to find them before the worms do—or else cut away the infestations as best as possible.

Szechuan Pickled Fungi & Vegetables

Szechuan peppercorns are the key ingredient. Not really pepper, the spice is actually the husk of a type of berry widespread through Asia. When consumed, it gives the mouth and lips a numb tingling feeling that works well with other hot spices commonly found in Szechuan foods.

1 lb cauliflower mushroom, boiled for a few minutes and cut into pieces
1 lb Napa cabbage, pulled apart and cut into 2-inch squares
1/2 lb diakon radish, sliced into 1/4-inch thick half-moons or matchsticks
2 carrots, sliced on an angle into 1/4-inch thick ovals
6-8 hot peppers cut in half and de-seeded
1/4 cup sliced ginger
2 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns
2 tbsp vodka
6-8 cups water, boiled and cooled
3 tbsp salt

Mix the brine and Szechuan peppercorns in a large tupperware or other non-reactive container. Stir in vodka; this is strictly for sanitary reasons. Add vegetables, fungi, and spices, making sure they are immersed completely in the brine. Cover and store at room temperature for 3-5 days. After the initial pickling, the contents can be refrigerated for 2 weeks.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

X-Country Double Lobster Risotto

That's right, two kinds of lobsters from two different coasts, East meets West: A Maine lobster of the surf variety and a Washington lobster of the turf variety, combined in a Reece's style mash-up for grown-up palettes. I gotta tell you, folks, this is a serious keeper, and I'm scratching my head wondering why I've never seen such a beast on a menu before because it makes so much sense.

Lobster mushrooms are named for their bright orange exterior that resembles the cooked crustacean—the colorful result of one fungus parasitizing another, with the hapless—and unpalatable—Russula brevipes being attacked and colonized by Hypomyces lactifluorum, resulting, incredibly, in a mushroom that is edible and choice.

The more I've cooked with lobsters over the last few years, the more I've begun to appreciate their versatility. They make a wonderful traditional duxelles sauce, and there's no denying they have a hint of seafood taste that works especially well in certain dishes of the sea. Plus, their texture when cooked is firm yet soft and smooth. You could almost use them in a traditional Lobster Risotto and skip the crustacean altogether. But when used together, it's like doubling your money.

2 Maine lobsters (each about 1 1/4 lbs)*
4 tbsp butter
1/2 lb lobster mushrooms, diced
1 large shallot, diced
1 celery rib, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup sherry
2 cups Arborio rice
8 cups stock*
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
2 tbsp chopped parsley and/or chives

* You can use chicken stock, fish stock, or make your own stock using the lobster shells, which is what we did. After cooking, remove lobster to cold water. Add to pot 1 cut up onion, 2 chopped carrots, 2 chopped celery ribs, and a bay leaf. Toss the lobster shells back into the pot as you finish cleaning them of their meat. Simmer, allowing stock to reduce, until ready to use, then strain.

1. Saute shallots, garlic, celery, and mushrooms in butter over medium-high heat. When the shallots are translucent, pour in the sherry and continue cooking until most of the alcohol has evaporated, then add the rice and stir to coat thoroughly, cooking another couple minutes.

2. Begin adding ladlefuls of warm stock in your preferred risotto style. I like this risotto creamy but not overly wet. Continue until the rice is cooked yet still al dente.

3. Meanwhile, chop up lobster meat to desired size, reserving large hunks of claw meat as garnish. When risotto is done, remove from heat and mix in Parmesan and lobster pieces. Sprinkle plated risotto with chopped herbs.

Serves 4. Pair with a medium to full-bodied white that isn't too oaky. Our local shop recommended an Argiolas Vermentino di Sardegna Costamolino 2008, which the New York Times called their favorite as well as "Best Value" in a recent roundup of Italian vermentinos.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Tom Yum with Salmon & Lobster Mushrooms

We've been laid low by the lurgies. Even a morning draught of stinging nettle tea couldn't clear my head...but an evening jolt of spicy Tom Yum with Salmon & Lobster Mushrooms, made from a salmon-head stock, seems to have done the trick for now.

Studies are being done on Tom Yum's immune-boosting properties and I'm not surprised. Along wih Pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup, Thailand's signature hot and sour soup Tom Yum Goong has been our go-to dinner when la grippe has us in its bony grip. Just inhaling those aromatic and spicy fumes is enough to cleanse the sinuses. Until this week, I had never tried to make it myself.

Tom Yum can be made with water, chicken stock, or fish stock. One recipe exhorts readers to use the shrimp's head fat to enrichen the soup base—and who am I to argue with such logic? I did this by removing the heads, squeezing their fat—a noticeable orange color, as illustrated in the photo—into the stock, and then tossing the heads into the boil for a little extra umph. But more than that, I got my deep fish flavor from a couple of salmon carcasses. This year I made sure to keep the remains of every salmon I caught and filleted, which means I've got a ton of soup heads and backbones in the freezer.

The lobster mushrooms, picked during a hike near the Columbia River Gorge, added extra flavor and chew. I've always loved the paddy straw mushroom, a mainstay in Asian soups (and present in this one), but the lobster contributed its seafoody flavor and a texture that's firmer than the straw mushroom. Together, the two species of fungus added heartiness to the soup.

3-4 cups stock or water*
1 medium-sized lobster mushroom, thinly sliced
1 dozen shrimp in the shell with heads
1 stalk lemongrass, mashed and cut into 3-inch pieces
6 kaffir lime leaves, bruised and de-stemmed
6 slices galangal
6 Thai chili peppers, mashed
3 tbsp lime juice
1 heaping tbsp roasted chili paste
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 can straw mushrooms
1 handful cilantro chopped for garnish

1. Peel shrimp, reserving heads and leaving tail on.
2. Bring stock, lemongrass, shrimp heads, and lobster mushrooms to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes.
3. Meanwhile combine chili peppers, chili paste, and lime juice in small bowl.
4. Remove shrimp heads with slotted spoon and add kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and shrimp. Simmer a few more minutes.
5. Turn off heat just before shrimp are fully cooked and add mixture of lime juice, chili peppers, and chili paste. Season with salt, brown sugar, and fish sauce according to taste.

Serves 2 ballooned-out congested heads.

*For salmon-head stock, brown in peanut oil in a heavy soup pot a couple small to medium-sized salmon heads (along with backbones if you have them). De-glaze with a splash or two of wine (Chinese cooking wine is preferable). Add 1 chopped leek and 2 chopped cloves of garlic. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for several more minutes. Add 8 cups of water and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain. The salmon meat can then be picked from the pot.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Freezer Burn, or: A Few Good Apps

If you want to get serious about foraged foods, a big ol' freezer is pretty much indispensable. Mine is packed with crabs, clams, nettles, mushrooms, berries, smoked salmon, shad, assorted heads, various stocks, and so on. Such a freezer full of foraged foods comes in handy for a party. Never mind that Marty tried her best to sabotage the whole affair by leaving the freezer door open for 18 hours a few days before. Most of the packages were still frozen, if sweating on the outside, and the clearly defrosted stuff got whipped into shape for the party, including stinging nettle pesto, Columbia river shad, and porcini mushrooms.

Look, Mom, no bones!

The shad in particular was a thing of genius. Several of the vacuum-sealed packages were flimsy, the once frozen shad now thawed and bendy. There was no way those things were going back into the deep freeze. As anyone who's ever processed these largest members of the herring family knows, shad are bony critters fit for deboning by the same jailbirds who punch out New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die" license plates.

Normally I have most of my Columbia River shad catch smoked and canned at Tony's, but I always keep a few fillets on hand to smoke myself or bake in the Low-Country style. This time I wanted a croquette I could serve at the party with a spicy New Orleans remoulade. I baked the shad for 30 minutes, spent 15 minutes picking as many bones as I could, and then buzzed the pile o' fish in the Cuisinart. To this pulverized mass of shad I added sauteed onions and red pepper, Worstcester sauce, lemon juice, an egg, some flour, cayenne pepper, and a bunch of fresh herbs from the garden, including tarragon, basil, chives, and parsley. I added more of the herbs than you might think; the more the better, in fact. Shad is a rich, strong-tasting fish, and the fresh herbs help to brighten the flavor and temper it at the same time. Hank Shaw has posted a similar recipe here, minus the sauteed veggies and lemon.

Once made, you can refrigerate the shad for a few days until party time. It has a consistency similar to well-mixed tuna fish salad. Or you can plow ahead and make the croquettes ahead of time and then freeze. I took the latter path, forming little hockey pucks of about the same diameter as a fifty-cent piece. These I dredged generously in panko and placed on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper. Into the freezer they went for a couple hours until solid enough to be removed to zip-lock bags. An hour before the party I arranged them once again on a cookie sheet to defrost and fried in oil minutes before the guests arrived. The fried shad croquettes were then topped with the red remoulade (although an aioli would be good too).

Porcini Crostini

I took this one from John Sundstrom, the chef/owner of Lark restaurant in Seattle. The prep is really quite simple: chopped porcini mushrooms roasted in olive oil with fresh thyme and rosemary. It's a little depressing to see all that beautiful fresh porcini lose half its volume by the time it comes out of the oven, but that's the nature of this fungal beast. Thinly sliced baguette is lightly toasted, rubbed with garlic, covered with a blanket of good ricotta, and topped with the porcini (and a generous sprinkling of salt).

Slow-roasted Tomatoes with Nettle Pesto Garnish

The last canape escaped the intrusions of paparazzi. Tomatoes were cored, chopped, and placed in a glass dish with olive oil to slowly roast overnight in a 225-degree oven. These got spooned on squares of baked polenta and dabbed with stinging nettle pesto.

Next time Marty better conspire to leave the freezer door open a little longer, 'cause we gotta clean out that sucker once and for all this winter.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Chanties Chanties Everywhere

The chanterelle. Despite its romantic twirl off the tongue, you'd think it was practically domesticated—an off-the-shelf French floozy Halloween costume. Is there an A-list wild mushroom that gets less respect, after all, than the chanty? Like an over-exposed model, it has the faint whiff of "been there done that." Well, I for one wouldn't kick a golden chanterelle out of bed for eating Cheez-Its!

Their fruity nose of apricots is unique in the fungal kingdom, and that fruitiness carries over into taste. Though earthy like other wild mushrooms, the chanterelle's flavor is reminiscent of orchards and vineyards and other more civilized habitats. In my neck of the woods they're without a doubt the most common of the wild mushrooms, gracing even the shelves of the local Safeway.

But don't be fooled. Though common, chanterelles are not always an easy find, and their singular flavor and aroma can transform many a dish from pedestrian to sublime, in particular any dish with bacon in it. Something about the union of fruity chanterelle with the essence of pig is a marriage made in culinary heaven.

How do you find chanterelles, you ask? I can't speak for other parts of the country, but in the Pacific Northwest young stands of Douglas fir are your best bet. This means a trip to logging country, where you'll pass miles of unsightly clearcuts before finding that perfect stand of 10 to 40-year-old tree farm Doug-firs where chanties thrive. This is not my favorite sort of mushroom hunting. The forest is dense, damp, and dark—and usually a boring monoculture. But if you can manage to find a patch of woods that hasn't been visited by a commercial forager you'll find the green moss carpeted with golden fungal goblets. These are the classic Pacific golden chanterelles, Cantharellus formosus. There are other varieties.

A strikingly hued species associated with spruce—Sitka on the coast and Engelmann in the inland West—goes by the name Cantharellus cibarius var. roseocanus. I find these chanterelles, known to commercial pickers as "peach chants" or "fluorescent chants," in the high huckleberry meadows of the Cascades, where they hug the ground in a most unchanterelle-like demureness, their dullish yellow caps with a surprisingly flat topography peeking out of the duff. But slice one off at the ankles and turn it over and you'll see the most blazing hue of neon orange underneath the cap.

And let's not forget the humble white chanterelle (Cantharellus subalbidus), which is often less expensive at the market than its golden cousin yet is my favorite for its meatiness and strong flavor. White chanties hide beneath the duff, often requiring an eagle eye and careful excavation. The result is a chanterelle that is dirtier than its golden counterparts but worth the effort to root out and clean up.

Fig & Chanterelle Crostini

For this post I tried to stay away from heavy cream, an effort of Dr. Strangelove proportions. The photo at top is my favorite new canape, a simple dollop of chopped chanterelles sauteed with shallots and fresh sage in butter topped with a thin slice of fig and a sprinkle of parsley. Admittedly, I wasn't too keen on the fig when a few of us first concocted this simple crostini; I thought the addition of fresh fig would take the fruitiness factor too far, but in fact it merely drives home the fact that chanterelles are a woodsy treat.

The photo at bottom shows a chanterelle succotash of sorts: Balsamic Glazed Pork Loin over Chanterelles, Corn & Apple. I'd say this is still a work in progress. I sauteed the chanties in bacon fat (with the diced bacon left in) along with chopped shallots, then added corn scraped off the cob, a diced Granny Smith apple, and a handful of baby arugula. The sweet and tart flavors still need some balancing, so I won't bother with the full recipe.

The other dinner shot is a recipe taken from Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques, Scallops with Chanterelles, Sherry, and Parsley Breadcrumbs. This was a meal that encouraged third helpings and I can't recommend Goin's book enough.

Chanties offer endless possibilities for brightening a meal with fall color and the tastes and smells of the harvest season. To borrow from Bull Durham, when you speak of the chanterelle, speak well.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Herding of the Pinks

Every other year at the end of August a bunch of friends get together to fish, laugh, and fish some more. We know each other through that most post-post modern of mediums, the Internet chat group, in this case a fly-fishing forum. Too bad Marshall McLuhan isn't around to witness and comment on the forging of such connections. If I could pull an Alvy Singer I would.

Our rallying site adds to the post modern twist: the industrial port of Seattle where the Duwamish River empties into Elliott Bay. Yet this isn't meant to be an ironic sort of fish slumming. As my friend Nope puts it, this is the most democratic of fisheries. Recent immigrants line the riprap, factory workers come out to throw a line during lunch break, and well-heeled anglers in yachts patrol the shipping channels. It's not a scenic place to wet a fly in the traditional sense—it's no Montana as portrayed in A River Runs Through It—but it has its own beauty. This is the grittiest of urban foraging, complete with container ships, trash compactors, big-bellied planes taking off and landing at nearby Boeing Field, cranes swiveling overhead, barges blowing their bullhorns, and a silhouette of stilettoed skyscrapers in the distance. Oh, and the place is a Superfund site.

With pontoons, kickboats, even sketchy rubber rafts, we take to the water armed with flyrods and round up our quarry, the pink salmon. Also known as humpies for the pronounced hunchbacks developed by males in the spawning phase, pink salmon have a two-year life cycle and return to local rivers every other year. Not nearly as esteemed as their bretheren the kings, silvers, and sockeyes, their flesh is less deep red and oil-saturated, so commerically they're mostly used by the canneries. But pinks are good biters, especially on a fly, and their meat smokes up very nicely.

Besides, the pink is a scrappy fish that seems to have taken to the scraps left behind in our devastated world. They're our fish, and we love them. Most pinks around Puget Sound average three to five pounds; those heading up the Duwamish to spawning grounds on the Green River run a little larger. We caught several in the six to seven pound range, including especially large dime-bright females.

Fishing the beaches during a large run is productive, but once the fish converge at the tidal mouths of their natal streams the action can get silly. This is the time to lean on the oars. Like fly-fishing for trout, you put the fly in the ring of the rise and WHAM! Fish on. At the peak you can have fish after fish slamming your fly—a notion that runs counter to most of what you hear about fly-fishing for salmon—and each one puts a solid bend in a 6-, 7-, or even 8-weight rod, towing a kickboat in circles before it succumbs to the net. We herders find a likely corner away from the barges and tugs to circle our wagons. Pinks run this gauntlet at their own peril, especially if my friend Bubba is tossing a line. Bubba has dialed in the Seattle pink fishery in the last decade like no one else and watching him fish is a lesson in humility. (A crack photographer as well, he contributed a few of the shots that accompany this post and video.)

BTW, if someone tells you the pink isn't worth keeping for the table, you smile and nod while you stack that limit in your cooler. I catch enough pinks every other year to take care of all my smoked salmon needs, and the brightest ones hit the barbecue the same day.

Smoked Salmon

It's easy to get worked up about all the possibilities for smoked salmon. You can use 101 different spices, juices, aromatics, etc. But if you catch fish in quantity, as we do during the pink run, you also gain a new understanding of what hunter-gatherer cultures were up against. For the two weeks I actively fished—about half the run—I lost more than a lot of sleep. Fish, work, fish some more, clean and fillet, put the kids to bed, brine the fish, go to bed, wake up and rinse off the brined fish, then fish the morning tide, work, fish until dark, clean and fillet, put the kids to bed, stay up late smoking the first batch and brining the next, haul stinky garbage to curb, try to clean kitchen before wife goes ballistic, sleep a few hours, get up and fish...and so on.

Notice how during that entire two-day cycle I only managed to smoke one batch. With limits of 4 to 6 fish daily (depending on area), we were drowning in salmon. Not that I'm objecting. So the point? Stick to basics. A simple brine of brown sugar, salt, and garlic is really all you need, with a dry brine being easier and less messy than a wet brine.

4 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup pickling salt
1 head garlic, cloves peeled & chopped
black pepper to taste

Mix the dry brining ingredients. Generously cover each piece of salmon (I cut pink salmon fillets into thirds), then place skin-up in a non-reactive dish. Refrigerate for 6-8 hours. The brine will have become a soupy mess after water has been leached out of the fish. Gently rinse off each piece and allow to air-dry on paper towels for a couple hours until a pellicle forms—the tacky (not wet) outer layer of flesh that is so loaded with flavor.

For the actual smoking I use a Weber "Bullet," but it's possible to employ a regular gas grill in a pinch. A water pan is essential for keeping the fish from drying out. For wood chips I like to use fruit trees: apple, or cherry if I can get it. Alder is good too. If not green, the chips need to be immersed in a bucket of water for 30 minutes, then tossed on the coals in handfuls. Everyone has their own theories about temperature and smoking duration. Hot smoking will always be quicker than cold smoking. Because pink salmon fillets aren't thick, I usually figure on smoking for about an hour, even with a small amount of coals, maybe an hour and a half at most.

The last step is vacuum-sealing. I've kept properly packaged smoked salmon in the deep freeze for two years without any appreciable loss of flavor or tenderness.

Blackberry Must & Citrus Cured Salmon

Another option is cured salmon. While making blackberry wine with my friend Becky [future post], her chef pal Ashlyn turned me on to a use for the leftover must, the mashed up fruit that settles on the bottom of the barrel during the initial fermentation phase. Once you rack the wine for the first time, the must is discarded. But Ashlyn suggested I use it to cure fresh salmon. So I did.

2 lb salmon fillet(s)
3/4 cup pickling salt
1 cup brown sugar
1 each zest of a lemon, lime & orange
1 teaspoon peppercorns
1 sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
1 cup blackberry must*

* If you happen to have some blackberry must laying around, by all means use it. If not, the rest of the ingredients make an excellent cure on their own.

Mix all ingredients minus the must in a food processor. Next add the must a little at a time, enough to color the cure but not so much as to make it soggy. Spread a thick layer of cure on bottom of non-reactive dish, up to 1/4 inch. Lay salmon, skin side up, on top of cure, then pack remaining cure on top of the salmon. Cover salmon with plastic wrap and weight down with a few pounds (e.g., cans from the cupboard). Flip salmon in 12 hours. Salmon is finished after 24 hours. Rinse and dry.

The cured salmon will be darker, with an attractive, slightly purple hue from the must, plus there will be a smattering of blackberry seeds that give it extra texture. Slice thinly off the top and eat within a week. I had mine on pumpernickel with a dollop of creme fraiche and chives.

And remember to kiss that first pink salmon of the season. They're the only species of salmon left in the Lower 48 that gives us a hint of what salmon fishing was once like in the not-so-distant past.