Monthly Archives: May 2008

The High, Wind-Blown Desert

The last two weekends we’ve made pilgrimages to the dry side of the mountains in search of sun and sustenance. Eastern Washington’s high, wind-blown desert—known to ecologists as a shrub-steppe ecosystem—is a place torn asunder by belching volcanoes and biblical floods. The Columbia River Gorge and other desert canyons were scoured out by the periodic torrents of water released from prehistoric Lake Missoula, and the pumice littering much of the basin erupted out of the enormous crater of Mount Mazama. These scablands are now a place of rattlesnakes, wheeling raptors, and high blue skies in summer.

As with many desert canyons, you might be surprised with what you find down in the cracks and crevices at the bottom of the columnar basalt cliffs where spring freshets purl. These oases are rife with plants and birds. Western tanagers, black-headed grosbeaks, Nashville warblers, lazuli buntings, and numerous other neotropical migrants were not only common but seemingly fearless of our presence. More than once the birdsong was hushed by the shadow of a golden eagle gliding past, and we had a brief view of a hunting Cooper’s hawk.

Along one trail we found enough shade and moisture to support a bed of spring beauties, Claytonia perfoliata—known as miner’s lettuce for its use by “forty-niners” as a source of vitamin C during the California Gold Rush. What is it about wild foods that’s so appealing to kids? (I have some ideas and will try to answer this question in a future post.) I watched my finicky, vegetable-averse boy eat his first bite of green in months.

This past weekend we camped in the Teanaway with hordes of other Memorial Day roustabouts. The amount of snow still hanging around is hard to fathom. Beverly campground at the foot of the Stuart Range was mostly snowed in, so we dropped down to the West Fork and joined all the rabble-rousers at the free timber industry camp: RVs everywhere, jacked up trucks, generators buzzing, the whole motorized American dream, complete with midnight dynamite blasts and gunshots. What a great country! Wonder how high gas prices will have to climb before this scene goes kaput.

In a selective logging cut we found these somewhat dry and stunted morels, about a dozen in all. After finding good quantities of morels a few days earlier, I was disappointed by our meager score. With the long winter, Verpa bohemica—the “early morel“—was still in play among the cottonwoods, meaning, sadly, the true morels were not up yet in the higher elevation bottomlands. Some folks eat verpas without ill effects. David Arora gives them a “not recommended” rating. But they’re still fun to find:

The month of May has been an active time for this forager. Here at FOTL we’ve gone after tasty morsels of the sea and elusive delicacies on land; we’ve attended a Wild Food Adventure and eaten some excellent dinners (and lunches too!). Coming up in June will be more mushroom action with the peak of the morel and spring porcini season, along with a return to the water for a free-dive in pursuit of the toothy—and toothsome—lingcod.

But I shouldn’t get too far ahead of myself: on the last day of May I’ll be attending a NATS foray in search of spring white truffles. More on that soon.

Shellfish Stew

The last time my parents came to town we invited a bunch of friends over and served this Shellfish Stew to a dozen hungry guests. It’s a real crowd-pleaser. Who doesn’t like fresh seafood in the shell cooked in a tomato broth? The shrimp, in particular, help to flavor the stew. A dish like this can make you wonder why shrimp is ever sold and eaten sans shell—it’s the shell, folks, that’s packed with flavor! Whole shrimp, especially honking, insect-like spot shrimp that you’ve captured yourself, look cool too.

Marcella Hazan calls this recipe All-Shellfish and Mollusks Soup (p. 316, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, 10th printing). True, if something of a mouthful. I call it simply Shellfish Stew. My version differs from Marcella’s with its use of whole shrimp in the shell and more tomatoes. (Is it just me and my love of the New World fruit, or is Marcella a tad parsimonious with tomatoes in general?)

Shellfish Stew is similar to other classic seafood soups with its fresh shellfish and tomatoes, but it differs from a traditional Cioppino in its lack of finned fish. Like a bouillabaisse, which is a Provencal version of Cioppino, Shellfish Stew is served over a thick slice of toasted crusty bread; my preference is the Rosemary Diamante made by Seattle’s Essential Bakery.

2 lbs whole squid
2 dozen or more live littleneck clams
1 dozen live mussels
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1 tbsp garlic, minced
3 tbsp parsley, chopped
1 cup dry white wine
1 large can (28 oz) canned plum tomatoes, chopped, with juice
1 lb fresh whole shrimp in shell, with tails sliced lengthwise for easy removal
salt and pepper to taste
pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
1 lb fresh scallops
Good crusty bread, sliced thick and toasted

1. Clean and slice squid into rings; leave tentacles attached and whole if small. Scrub clams and mussels.
2. Saute onions in oil on medium heat until translucent. Add garlic. When garlic is golden, add the parsley. Stir, then pour in wine and let bubble for half a minute before adding tomatoes with juice. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Add the squid and cook at a gentle simmer for 45 minutes. Add water if necessary.
4. Season stew with spices, then add the shrimp. Simmer five minutes before adding clams and mussels and turning up heat to high. Stir. As clams and mussels begin to open, add the scallops. Cook until all clams and mussels are open.
5. Ladle into large soup bowls, over toasted bread.

And don’t forget the leftovers: You have instant Shellfish Pasta.

The Art of the Morel Hunt, or Bingo!

My compatriots down in Oregon—Oregoons, ev’ry one of ’em—have been killing it on the big riparian yellows. Meanwhile up here in the topleft corner we’re still thawing out. But after a few days of 90-degree heat last week and then a good rain spell, it was time to screw on the morel nose.

The day started out well enough. In a little clearing near a logging cut I found this alien space egg…I mean giant western puffball (Calvatia booniana). Bigger than a softball and a few pounds, it should fry up nicely with some scrambled eggs. This was the mental boost I needed: hunting morels can get discouraging, and like any pursuit, as soon as you’re convinced the object of your desire is unattainable, you’re doomed.

I continued east, in the direction of warmth. That’s the gating factor (as they say in CubeLand)—the morels require sufficient ground temps before they’ll deign to grace us with their ephemeral presence. Timing is key. If it rains too much after a flush the morels can turn to mush. Too hot and they dry out; too cold and they shrivel. Some hunters even use thermometers to take the Earth’s crust’s temperature. I prefer gauging with other plants and fungi.

I knew I was in the right place, at the right time. All the indicators were flashing code red. Or something like that. First there was the flurry of Calypso bulbosa, the delicate fairy slipper orchid (above right). Trilliums were turning from white to pink. Then there was the cup fungi, and nearby a fruiting of verpas and a colony of snowbank false morels (pictured below).
The snowbank morels suggested I should seek out a sunnier spot or drop down in elevation; they usually fruit a couple weeks ahead of the true morels. And sure enough, nearby in a sun-exposed high-water wash of disturbed, sandy soil, I found this, my first of the year:
But with only a handful to show for myself after a good long search in the area, the decision was made: drop down in elevation.

With this gameplan in mind, I checked a few spots and came away with a couple dozen morels, including this monster to the right. I bushwhacked through some incredibly inhospitable territory—and yet it was clear I was not the first to pass through the area with a mushroom basket. I found evidence of other mycophagists: a footprint here, disturbed brush there. I even found a pencil—no doubt being used to jot down coordinates of secret stashes.

In the Northwest, the first flush of morels follows the river valleys east of the Cascades. I’m convinced a large part of one’s success is determined by the intensity of hunting pressure. There are only so many of these beauties to go around, and in fairly confined areas at that. Later, when the mountain morels start to pop, the pressure spreads out. But the key to success during the initial pulse is to find unoccupied territory. It was clear to me that other pickers were on the prowl, so I moved on, checking spots until I arrived here:

I could have plowed on, but what’s the point? Greed only lessens the experience. It was time to get home so I could enjoy a proper celebration.

The meal started out with a Midwest classic: fried morels. I halved several of the prime specimens, dipped them in flour, and fried gently in butter for ten minutes.

The main was a grilled veal chop smothered in morel cream sauce with brown rice and sauteed kale from the garden. It was good.

Mad Shrimping

Hood Canal. Last day of spot shrimp season. Two guys, two shrimp pots, 800 feet of rope. One canoe.

This may be one of stupider things I do on occasion, but it’s surely no stupider than things I did in my youth. Yes, the water’s cold and if we dumped it would be a problem, but generally we try to stay close enough to shore so that, in the event of an emergency, the swim isn’t too far.

A few years ago we hit Dabob Bay further up the Canal on a beautiful yet blustery spring day. By late morning there were whitecaps on the water, which made for a tough go. This outing was a piece of cake. No wind, still water, not too many boats. After setting the first two pots we paddled to shore and snacked on a few oysters. Seals and eagles foraged nearby.

But maybe we should have been a tad more superstitious. After all, we were shrimping off Dewatto Point, known to the Salish Indians as the place where men’s bodies are inhabited by evil spirits.

Shrimping off Dewatto Point was sketchy enough; when I got home I was beat tired and able to summon only enough energy to make tempura fried shrimp. Head on.

Martha joined me. “It’s like salt and pepper shrimp at the Hing Loon,” I explained. “The head is good for you. Plus, you don’t want to be wasteful.” But Martha won’t be biting the heads off shrimp again anytime soon. The next day she said they invaded her dreams.

Rendezvous Recap, Part 3

The biggest surprise of last weekend’s Native Shores Rendezvous was the edibility—make that downright delectability—of the humble barnacle. On Sunday in the vicinity of Lincoln City we collected the biggest specimens we could find attached to California mussels (Mytilus californianus), a foraging twofer. Once boiled, the colonies of barnacles can be peeled off their host shells and the meat extracted with a single chopstick by pushing it through each individual barnacle shell. You hold onto the beak like a popsicle stick and eat the rest. It’s a rich, buttery flavor even without melted butter for dipping.

Of course, not every new foraging experience works out so well. Some wild foods are more appealing than others

In addition to cow parsnip (which I rather enjoyed), during stops at a few different seashore locations we identified several other species of seaweed, including sea cabbage, feather boa kelp, ribbon kelp, iridescent kelp, sea palm, and a poisonous species, Desmarestia ligulata. At a bay to the south we used clam guns to dig mahogany clams (pictured) and ghost shrimp, as mentioned in an earlier post. A marshy area inland provided tender hearts of cat-tail.

Our last stop of the day was at a private residence where we picked the leaves of cat’s ear, oxeye daisy (pictured), and Siberian miner’s lettuce, and munched on the cool and refreshing peeled stalks of salmonberry.

While the previous evening’s feast had been composed almost entirely of foraged foods—and unadorned at that—the Sunday meal was more relaxed. With ample help I made a vat of New England Clam Chowder to get our cream, butter, and bacon quotient back into the red.

The workshop concluded Monday morning with a “weed walk” around the neighborhood, with John identifying all sorts of mostly non-native plants that the average person considers weeds and the forager might consider food. I think I can speak for the two-dozen of us who attended that we were exhausted by the end but also energized by the possibilities for gathering and cooking wild foods. I’ll be attending more Wild Food Adventures in the future.

Rendezvous Recap, Part 2

For Part 1 of the Native Shores Rendezvous Recap, click here.

After collecting goodly amounts of bivalves and seaweeds, it was time to head inland to find plain old weeds (and native greens, too). I’m not sure exactly where we were—somewhere off 101, possibly the Trask River.

We pulled over to the side of the road and stepped into a Japanese knotweed factory. The invasive weed was everywhere. Most of it was too big for our purposes; we wanted the young, leafless shoots to saute and broil like asparagus, although we took a few of the largest stems to scrape for pie filling. I must confess the knotweed was not my favorite edible of the weekend. We found few really short stems, and though I can see how new shoots could be treated like asparagus and grilled or broiled, these were somewhat fibrous.

Nearby was the delicate lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and its scrumptious young shoots. These fiddleheads, with their relatively clean scrolls, were a welcome change from the fiddleheads I had been gathering outside Seattle this spring.

When we got all this booty back to the lodge there was still no time to rest. Now we had to process the foraged food and get it ready for cooking. Fortunately the rain let up long enough to do this part outside.

The forager’s feast on Saturday night was just that—a meal made purely with foraged foods and nothing else save salt and pepper. We boiled each round of bivalves—cockles, butter clams, gapers, and a few littlenecks—in the same cauldron of water, then used the broth as the base of a delicious soup that included chopped cockles, seaweeds, fiddleheads, and knotweed spears. There were more steamer clams than anyone knew what to do with. A fresh salad included a few leaves of conventional lettuce and a little red bell pepper and carrot for color but otherwise was composed of seaweeds (both cooked and raw), chopped knotweed, and blanched fiddleheads. The knotweed pies would have to wait until the next night.

Rendezvous Recap, Part 1

Before I launch into my multi-part post on the Native Shores Rendezvous, allow me to plug this event and other Wild Food Adventures led by John Kallas as a worthwhile expense of time and money for a would-be forager. If you’re like me, there’s no substitute for on-site learning from someone who knows the subject. Like mountaineering, fishing, birdwatching, and so on (fill in the blank with your favorite activity), there’s only so much you can learn from books. Identifying shellfish, seaweeds, and plants in their habitat—with real live specimens—is an approach that works.

The Rendezvous commenced Friday evening with a welcome introduction at the “lodge,” a rough-hewn house a block from the beach in Rockaway, Oregon. John gave us some handouts and talked a little bit about what we would be doing for the rest of the weekend. In short: foraging, lots of foraging. After breakfast the next day the two-dozen attendees carpooled a few miles south of Rockaway to our first stop, where we identified and collected edible seaweeds, including Fucus, sea lettuce, and nori (pictured). These we would add later to a soup and also eat raw in a salad. Oh, and btw, the flavor is excellent, if hard to explain, and the texture will appeal to anyone who likes their pasta al dente, with a little snap to it.

Learning about edible seaweeds was one of the main reasons I signed up for the Rendezvous. The info provided by books and the Internet just isn’t enough—for me, at least. Seaweeds are tricky. I needed to have the different species identified for me, and I needed info on processing, cooking, and storing. One of the great things about seaweed is that you can dry it and store it for long periods of time. Reconstituted in water, dried seaweed is nearly identical in flavor and texture to fresh.

On the way back to the parking lot John picked a clump of winter cress, also known as yellow rocket or bittercress (Barbarea vulgaris), which normally would be a desirable edible, but because this particular bunch was growing beside train tracks, he explained, it was out. Train tracks and a swath of land on either side of them are some of the most polluted, chemically-laden areas in the country.

Our next stop, an estuary to the south, was especially productive. Most of us limited on cockles, a species I had never dug for, as well as butter clams and a few giant gapers. Digging in the exposed sand flats produced a few smaller cockles, but the best way to get them was to use our rakes in less than a foot of water. We found a cooperative forager willing to pose for an instructional:

When they’re not underwater, cockles reveal themselves with two tiny holes side by side in the sand, called a “show.” Further out on the flats we found the dime-sized shows of butter clams. Gapers’ shows were even larger. To get the gaper (pictured), you had to dig a trench about two or three feet deep and work toward the big clam without damaging its shell. Although this was true of butter clams as well, I found that digging with my hands was more effective. The gapers are cool looking clams, with huge necks, but they can be tough and they’re hard to process. The butter clams are tastier, although it’s best to rest the clams in a bucket of salt water for 24 hours, periodically aerating the water and keeping it cold, so they expel their sand. The cockles can be sandy too, but since they’re best suited for chowder (being a chewy clam) you can clean out the sand as you steam and chop them into more manageable pieces.

Our forager gave a quick lesson in hunting down butter clams:

While we were digging clams the game warden dropped by. A few things I learned in the friendly exchange: Leaving your shellfish license or driver’s license in the car is a no-no and you will be fined. Collecting clams over the limit with the intention of throwing back the smallest at the end is also a no-no and you will be fined. Joining John on a clam digging expedition means you look honest enough to not bear too much scrutiny—which is lucky, because several in our party had either left licenses behind or were carrying too many clams.

Next: Rendezvous Recap, Parts 2 & 3; spot shrimping from a canoe on Hood Canal.

The New Frontier

Plenty magazine is “dedicated to exploring and giving voice to the green revolution that will define the 21st Century.” The May issue has an article on foraging’s rising star. They title it: Foraging: the next food frontier.

Money quote: “The most basic form of survival, foraging has become a new super-hobby, bringing together food-lovers, naturalists, and eco-crusaders.” Read more.

Drained at Drano

I’m way behind in posting. Stay tuned for a multi-part post on the Native Shores Rendezvous of last weekend. In the meantime, re: Columbia River spring chinook fishing at the mouth of the Little White Salmon River in the Gorge last Thursday…

…got skunked.

No surprise, really. It’s a boat show there, with limited access for bank anglers. Not really my kind of scene either. The boats circled one productive stretch near the bridge where most of the fish are hooked, putt-putting endlessly as if caught in a whirlpool (maybe that’s why they call it Drano Lake), sometimes getting into shouting matches with the old salts on shore who think they’re hogging the best water. Some of these old salts even made a point of landing their hardware inches from the hulls of boats that got too close. Whatever.

We tossed mag warts for a few hours and saw seven or eight fish landed by the boats. Considering there were 200-plus anglers on the water, that’s not a very optimistic catch rate. Maybe the tributaries will start to heat up soon and I’ll take another shot at a springer.

Sneak Preview: Ghost Shrimp

Just got back yesterday evening from a four-day Wild Food Adventure on the Oregon Coast. I’ve got pictures and notes to process and lots to think about, but I wanted to get something up as a preamble. The only food I returned with (we ate very well in situ) was a bag of ghost shrimp, which we gobbled up last night.

Ghost shrimp? you ask. Let me back up a little bit. On our way to the Rendezvous in Rockaway Beach, we stopped in the little fishing hamlet of Garibaldi to have dinner Friday night, at a place called The Ghost Hole. Being hungry and not at all sure we would find anything open during the off-season, The Ghost Hole was a welcome find and turned out a good burger and brew. Not until leaving did we even stop to think: What a weird name for a restuarant. The Ghost Hole? WTF?

On Sunday it made a little more sense. Now part of a large group (there were two-dozen of us) roaming the Oregon Coast in search of wild foods, we pulled over at Siletz Bay—one of many stops that day—to fill our buckets. The real object of our pursuit at that stop was the ethereal mahogany clam (a velvety smooth and delectable steamer clam, of which more later) but the ghost shrimp, looking like a tiny lobster with one giant claw, was a side benefit. We got the clams and shrimp by digging holes with a clam gun, a technique I’ve previously discussed here. The ghost shrimps occasionally floated up as the hole filled with water. The ghost hole.

You eat ghost shrimp whole, in the shell. I par-boiled mine first, so they wouldn’t be squirming in the pan, then dipped them into egg and flour before frying in hot oil. I had been warned that the ghost shrimp would need extensive cooking to soften their cartilaginous shells, but I found the light crunch to be an added bonus, like Chinese salt and pepper shrimp, with a juicy center and excellent crustacean taste somewhere between marine shrimp and crawdads. A little salt, cajun spice, and lemon sealed the deal.

More on the wild food workshop later.