Category Archives: classes

School’s Out…side

If there’s one message I want to send via this blog and my book, it’s this: Get outside.

The more time we spend in the outdoors reconnecting with the natural world, the healthier our minds and bodies will be and the more likely we’ll become good stewards of the environment. That’s my opinion, at least.
Last week I had a chance to put this simple idea to work with a dozen high school students. We spent the week mostly outside in a variety of landscapes, studying our local plants, animals, and fungi—and nourishing ourselves with the natural foods found all around us. 

On Day 1 we went to the beach. Most of the kids had never dug clams before. They found sand dollars and learned about invasive critters like the oyster drill. A few of them even sampled a raw oyster for the first time. Time passed quickly as they explored Puget Sound’s nearshore habitat, watching fly fishermen cast for searun cutthroat, munching on a sea bean or two, and noting a patch of Japanese knotweed that had gotten a foothold above the tideline.

After digging limits of Manila clams we steamed our catch on camp stoves, to unanimous approval. There was a palpable sense of achievement: we’re eating food we had gathered just moments earlier. It tasted fresh and satisfying.

Day 2 was spent in the Cascade foothills outside Seattle, where we hiked a few miles and identified dozens of edible plants along the way. We nibbled some and picked quantities of others for a Friday feast, including stinging nettles, fiddleheads, and miner’s lettuce.

The urban foraging component on Day 3 was perhaps the most surprising part of the week, as we found all kinds of delicacies in a public park just a few blocks away from school. The students picked enough dandelions to make several loaves of bread and a platterful of Dandy Burgers. But that was merely the beginning. Right in the city we found fiddleheads, wild wood sorrel, maple blossoms, and even a patch of shaggy mane mushrooms in prime condition, inspiring two of the students to compose “Ode to a Shaggy Mane,” the tragic tale of the mushroom’s biological imperative to deliquesce.

Also on Day 3 we had lunch at Nettletown to see how a local restaurant incorporates wild foods into its menu (verdict: delicious) and then broke into smaller groups back in the school kitchen to make Dandy Bread and Muffins at the end of the day.

Day 4 was a jaunt to the sunny side of the mountains to look for morel mushrooms. Who doesn’t love a treasure hunt? After I confirmed that a few of the cryptic caps were indeed poking out of the leaf litter, the students slowed down and started scanning the ground with intensity. Occasional hoots and hollers punctuated their discoveries. The excitement of the mushroom hunt was in the air. Our morel season has only just begun in the snowbound North Cascades but we found enough to saute up a panful with garlic and shallots and enjoy the distinctive earthy spring flavor of morels over sliced baguette.

For Day 5 the students gathered one last time to spend the day writing about their experiences before cooking a celebratory meal. I couldn’t be there for the final feast, but no matter; at that point they had confidence in their abilities to plan and execute a wild food menu of their own devising. Susanne, their teacher, told me later that “the kids really impressed themselves and the people around campus. It was a gorgeous sunny day so we set up a table out on the grass and had a picnic.”

What a perfect way to conclude a week in nature’s class room.

Spicy Thai Basil Clams

Last week I shucked and jived with my first shellfish class. We couldn’t have asked for a better day. The sun was out, as were bald eagles, plenty other clam diggers, and daytrippers shaking off what has been a tough spring of record rain and cold. A herd of elk even joined us on the beach to take in the sun. John Adams, manager of Taylor Shellfish‘s Dosewallips farm, was also on hand to share his extensive knowledge of shellfish habits and habitat.

And my words of wisdom to the assembled students, as reported by Seattle Weekly‘s new food critic, Hanna Raskin? Shellfish harvesting is “embarrassingly easy.” Not that you should be embarrassed to take a class to learn how! Probably my choice of words could have been better.

The thing is, digging Manila clams is easy. They live just a few swipes of a hand rake beneath the surface of gravelly or muddy beaches throughout Puget Sound. After digging limits of clams and picking oysters, we walked back to a picnic shelter at Dosewallips State Park to cook our catch. If clamming is embarrassingly easy, preparing a gourmet meal in the outdoors is eye-poppingly simple.

First, to accompany an oyster shucking demo, we whipped together a Tom Douglas mignonette with champagne vinegar, diced shallot, lemon zest, and black pepper. I keep baby jars on hand for just this purpose. The mignonette was met with unanimous approval—it’s no secret that a touch of acidity can bolster the joys of oyster eating.

Next we fired up the camp-stoves to make two different batches of steamed clams, one with Italian sausage and tomato, the other with a white wine and herbed butter sauce. I put the students to work. They diced onions, minced garlic, browned sausage, chopped herbs, and so on. The beauty of steamed clams is that a little prep leads to a meal that tastes like hours of kitchen slaving. The clams’ liquor is the magic ingredient, combining with the other elements to create an alchemy of flavors that demands good crusty bread for full sopping effect. Empty beer boxes soon filled up with shells, a modern day midden.

Meanwhile John put the charcoal grill to work. He had a bag of key limes on hand for just this moment. I can now say that BBQ oysters with a squeeze of key lime is my new favorite way to eat the briny bivalves. I’ll probably always like raw oysters the most, but it had been a while since I’d last barbecued them—and with a squirt of hot sauce rather than lime. John’s method was an improvement. Oysters plump up nicely on the grill and the flavor is more rich than raw on the halfshell. The key lime was a perfect accompaniment. John said his father—also a shellfish farmer—believed that oysters with barnacles on the shell were superior to those without. I had to agree.

The next night I prepared the rest of my clam limit at home, using this basic but flavorful Thai preparation.

Spicy Thai Basil Clams

3 lbs Manila clams
1 tbsp peanut oil
6 cloves garlic, diced
1 thumb ginger, diced
8 Thai bird chilies, halved & de-seeded
2 tbsp Chinese rice wine
2 tsp sugar
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp chili bean sauce
1 1/2 cup basil, chopped

1. Scrub and rinse clams.

2. Combine rice wine, sugar, fish sauce, and chili bean sauce into small bowl.

3. Heat oil in wok. Stir-fry garlic, ginger, and chili peppers for a minute or two over medium heat, then stir in sauce, raise heat to high, and add clams. Cover and cook until clams open, several  minutes.

4. When clams have opened, remove from heat and stir in basil.

Serve immediately with steamed rice while singing Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” as fair warning to your guests.

Bay Area Mini Tour

Dear Bay Area Foragers, Cooks, Outdoors Enthusiasts & Readers:

I’m happy to announce I’ll be visiting your lovely habitat (and my former stomping ground) April 19 thru 21 to read at local book stores and give a slide lecture at the Sonoma Mycological Society. Come by and say hello. You can find me:

Beginner Shellfish Foraging & Cooking Classes

In association with Bainbridge Island Parks & Rec, I’ll be teaching three shellfish foraging and cooking classes this spring. Two classes will focus on steamer clams and oysters, while the third will be in pursuit of the legendary geoduck, world’s largest burrowing clam.

  • May 1: Shellfish Foraging & Cooking. Bring your rubber boots and bucket. We’ll learn how to dig for clams, shuck oysters, and cook our catch. Lunch will be littleneck clams steamed in white wine sauce at a nearby picnic area, with oysters on the half-shell as an appetizer.
  • May 18: Same as above.
  • June 15: Geoduck Dig. We’ll learn the finer points of wrestling a giant geoduck clam from its lair, then repair to a nearby picnic area to make a delicious ceviche. Class size limited.

More information is available through Bainbridge Island Metro Park &  and Recreation DistrictTo register, please call 206-842-2306 x115.

Environmental Writers Workshop

Seattle’s Burke Museum is sponsoring its third annual Environmental Writers Workshop on Saturday, April  23, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Award-winning authors and journalists Carol Kaesuk Yoon (Naming Nature) and Bruce Barcott (The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw) will join me in leading both class-based and field-based sessions in this all-day workshop.  Enrollment is open to 40. We’ll divide into three groups so that each enrollee has a chance to work with all three instructors. Sessions will include panel talks, writing exercises, and class discussion. Lunch is provided. The cost is $100.

To register, please email burked@uw.edu or call (206) 543-5591.

Photo by Catherine Anstett

New Foraging Classes

By popular demand, I’ve added a new roster of foraging classes. These are in addition to the classes being offered by Bainbridge Island Parks & Rec. We’ll meet in the Cascade foothills east of Seattle for a narrated 3-hour walk through a variety of landscapes. The class will focus on the identification of numerous edible plants and fungi, their life-cycles, and habitats. We’ll also discuss proper harvesting techniques and tools; processing; cooking and recipes; and storage. The cost for these classes is $45 and includes a copy of my book. Maximum 12 per class.

  • Sunday, April 10, 10 a.m. FULL
  • Wednesday, April 27, 10 a.m. FULL
  • Tuesday, May 3, 10 a.m. FULL
To sign up, please email me at finspotcook AT gmail dot com. 
For those who missed my Stinging Nettles Class on Bainbridge Island, I’ll be doing a second nettles class on April 13. Call 206-842-2306 for more information.
Additionally, I’m planning to offer a Nature Writing Workshop for a small group of writers and journalers this summer. If this interests you, let me know so I can add you to my mailing list.

Announcing Beginner PNW Foraging Classes

Sign-up is now open CLOSED for three beginner foraging classes this spring in the Cascade foothills near Seattle. ***Stay tuned for more classes offered in the future.*** Each class will be a three-hour trail walk (2 miles, easy terrain) with an emphasis on identification and food preparation. We’ll examine dozens of wild plants and fungi that can be used in the kitchen. Trailside discussion will include notes on life cycle, habitat, season, harvesting techniques, processing, cooking, recipes, and putting up. Maximum 12 per class. The cost is $35, which includes a copy of my book, Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager.

The dates are:

  • Friday, March 25, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. FULL
  • Saturday, April 9, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. FULL
  • Monday, May 2, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. FULL

To sign up or request more information, please email me at: finspotcook AT gmail dot com. Group dates possible.

Also, I’ll be teaching shellfish and berry-picking workshops sponsored by Bainbridge Island Parks & Recreation.