Category Archives: Good Action

James Beard Award Nomination

JBA2I’m happy to report that my article “Into the Woods” for EatingWell magazine has been nominated for a 2016 James Beard Journalism Award.

The article follows Jeremy Faber, of Seattle’s Foraged and Found Edibles, on a mushroom hunting expedition in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. Cathy Whims, chef/owner of Nostrana in Portland, OR, supplied the recipes.

For more on the secretive world and hidden economy of wild mushroom hunting, see my book, The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America.

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!

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 clamEnsis 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
aji-mirin
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.

Oregon Truffle Festival #9

truffle7

I’ve already blocked out the dates on my 2015 calendar. The last weekend in January is truffle time, which means the first few weeks of the new year are a time of belt-tightening.

I’m talking about the annual Oregon Truffle Festival, which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary next year. I hear there are big plans afoot for 2015, so in order to be ready, I might need to join my parents on January 1 when they “put on the hair shirt.” Putting on the hair shirt entails cutting out all alcoholic beverages and rich foods for three weeks. They don’t last the full month because, according to them, their social schedule begins to heat up again in the last week of January. As does mine.

I look forward to the Oregon Truffle Festival every year. I’ve made friends who I know I’ll see that weekend, and only that weekend. They come from all over the country and abroad. Those of you who have read The Mushroom Hunters know that an entire chapter takes place at the festival. My editor would have been happy to see a whole book from there; he needs to get on a plane to Oregon.

This year’s lineup was pretty amazing. Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, authors of the James Beard award-winning books The Flavor Bible and What To Drink with What You Eat, were guest dignitaries (not to mention charming tablemates), and they helmed a tasting—along with Lee Medoff of Bull Run Distilling, beer guru Christian DeBenedetti, and wine writer Cole Danehower—that pushed the usual boundaries: three flights—wine, beer, and spirits—paired with truffled bites. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well an Oregon Vesper Cocktail (Medoyeff vodkaAria gin) paired with a White Truffle and Duck Liver Mousseline. Whodathunkit?

The first course of Saturday night’s Grand Truffle Dinner (pictured above), by Aaron Barnett of St. Jack in Portland, also involved the apparently now hip spirit pairing. Oregon White Truffle Cured Beef Tenderloin with Celery, Oregon Black Truffle, and Oyster Emulsion was nicely matched with a Celery Gimlet devised by St. Jack’s John Salas. I’m not a big cocktail drinker, but these pairings proved fresh and tasty.

The Grand Truffle Dinner was over the top as always, with everyone donning their finest attire (ahem, Mr. Winkler at right, with his turkey-tail tie). Pictured at the top of this post is the first course, created by Justin Wills of Restaurant Beck in Depoe Bay on the Oregon Coast, receiving its finishing touches: Oregon Black Truffle Chirashi with Dungeness Crab, Kampachi, Cured Scallop, Yuzu, Takawan, and Oregon Black Truffle Tamago (it helps to have a smart phone at table just to look up such ingredients!). Another unusual hit was the Chawanmushi of Foie Gras with Oregon White Truffles, served up by Hero Sone and Lisa Doumani of Terra in Napa Valley.

Thankfully I was going into this six-course feast with an appetite. Earlier that day I saw the beginnings of a new Périgord truffle orchard at Domaine Meriwether. (Just add water and wait 10 years!) Planted by New World Truffieres, the small plot is something of an experimental orchard, with several varieties of host tree that will be grown organically (no weed killers!) and subjected to new ideas in this otherwise very old business. Later at lunch, the winery served Beef Tartare with Black Truffle Mayonnaise, Micro Greens & Crostini (pictured above left), another of my favorites of the weekend, and paired with their excellent 2001 Brut Rosé. After that we worked off lunch with a walk in the woods. For those who wanted to take home some truffles, this was a good year. Everyone got a chance to forage their own with the help of Umami Truffle Dogs.

Now it’s time to put the hair shirt on.

Signed Gift Books

mushroom_hunters_gift_cover Give a signed copy of The Mushroom Hunters to the readers on your holiday gift list! I’m happy to inscribe, sign, and mail books. The cost is $25 for the book, including tax (a discount on cover price), plus $5.60 to ship each copy priority mail with 2-3 day delivery, for a total of $30.60.

Contact me at finspotcook AT gmail DOT com with mailing address and recipient name, and I’ll send you PayPal instructions. No gift wrap. Hurry while supplies last and there’s still time to send priority mail.

Everyone knows Santa loves mushrooms… Happy holidays!

The Wild Table

wild_table9

One of the perks of being a writer (besides the endless hours of self-doubt and boatloads of cash) is the chance to hit the road and meet up with likeminded folks—and call it work. Likeminded in my case means those who enjoy spending time both outdoors in nature and indoors in the kitchen.

This past weekend I traveled down to Eugene, Oregon, for the Mt. Pisgah Mushroom Festival. Along the way I stopped near the funky coastal hamlet of Yachats to visit with a friend who I knew only from Facebook. David is an ace cook, mushroom forager, and photographer. His food photography graces the web site Earthy Delights. His wife Anna is of Russian descent, which makes her genetically predisposed to sleuthing out fungi.

Together the three of us hunted some of their favorite spots and came away with a cooler filled with beautiful #1 matsutake buttons, plump porcini, and a variety of other edible boletes. Back at their home, we celebrated our bounty in Russian fashion—Za vashe zdorovie!—with a shot of yellowfoot-infused vodka (and then another) and got down to the business of snapping a few pics of that evening’s wild table.

Unlike me, David is an organized and well prepared food photographer. He had a light box and tripod in his office along with various deflectors and gizmos. We set up some of that evening’s goodies, starting in the upper right corner and moving clockwise: yellowfoot-infused vodka, salt-cured saffron milkcaps, matsutake, golden chanterelles, king boletes, shots of yellowfoot vodka, wild scaber-stalk bread, dried chanterelle spice rub, and smoked salmon spread.

After a first course of homemade ravioli with a pork and chestnut filling and a salad course of romaine hearts with fresh-shaved porcini and a Meyer lemon dressing, we proceeded out front into the cool evening air to grill: matsutake caps with a ponzu marinade and dipping sauce of soy and key lime; traditional olive oil and garlic marinated porcini; a fillet of wild Chinook salmon with chanterelle spice rub and rock crab butter; and a dessert of pears with spruce bud syrup. As the decanter’s waterline of yellowfoot vodka ebbed, multiple bottles of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir appeared. It was a feast to savor, capping off a fruitful day of foraging with new friends on a miraculously sunny fall day on the Oregon Coast.

The next morning, after a rise-n-shine bowl of Matsutake Wonton Soup, I drove the pretty little Alsea River through the Coast Range, spying salmon fishermen along the way, to Eugene for the mushroom festival. It was a huge success, with a big crowd of fungal fanciers, more than 400 species identified, and a bluegrass band playing outside. Volunteers whooped it up at the After Party and I made the wise decision to spend one more night. I also had the opportunity to put a few faces to names, including the elusive Chicken-of-the-woods (aka Laetiporus Sulphureus) and Dimitar Bojantchev, moderator of the Mushroom Talk listserv. As a nightcap, my hosts in Eugene, Bruce and Peg, plied me with their delicious (and powerful) homemade blackberry brandy.

The next day I bid adieu to Madame Muscaria and the rest of the characters that make Eugene and the Oregon Coast such a pleasure to visit, with plans to make it back down there again as soon as possible.

Merry Pinkmas!

photoI wrote about the Pink Invasion in the July issue of Seattle Magazine. Truth be told, since that article first appeared I’ve been too busy fishing for pinks to do much blogging. Fishing…and filleting, brining, and smoking. Repeat. My freezer is rapidly accumulating a two-year supply of smoked salmon.

This is a fishery that hardly existed a generation ago in Puget Sound. As such, in this age of general decline, it feels like a special gift. And it’s not too late to get in on the action. Read the article and then check out these tips for smokin’ yer own.

Of Grays and Greenies

The first day I visited the burn, in early June, there wasn’t a car in sight. The fire had burned right down to the logging road and a trailhead was marked off with police tape. Signs warned of falling trees and other dangers. We could see the morels before getting out of the car.

Over the next week or two a few other pickers trickled in. To the south, a large, well-publicized burn was taking all the pressure—though I knew it couldn’t last. By the time this smaller patch was on the radar, I’d dried enough morels for several winters and many holiday gifts. After a few weeks of staying away, I went back the other day. Again, not a car in sight. The conica morels were long gone for the season.

But not the grays. While the morel season is winding down in Washington State (some years, with enough summer rain, you can pick burn morels well into fall in the Northwest), the last of the burn morels are fruiting in limited numbers at the higher elevations. Conditions might be different up in British Columbia.

Just the same, the last act is a good one. Finding clusters of big grays always makes my heart skip a beat. The gray morel (Morchella tomentosa) is the easiest of the many burn morels to identify. In its youth it has a distinctly gray cap that’s densely pitted, and unlike other species it also has a dark stem with a nearly rubbery texture. Under a microscope you can see lots of little hairs at the base of the stem, hence its other common name, fuzzy-foot. Grays can be quite large, and mature specimens seem to have two color phases, gray and light yellow, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Commercial pickers sometimes call the big yellow ones blonds, not to be confused with the mountain blond (Morchella frustrata).

The photo at top shows a pod of mature grays, each of them several inches tall. Notice how the stems appear white at this stage, in contrast to the dark stems of younger grays. As these morels age, the stems lose their gray exterior and the ridges on the cap become sharp and brittle. As little bits of the ridges crumble off, the cap takes on a speckled look. Now look at these younger, smaller specimens below.

The shape and coloration is variable. Of the nine in this picture, all but one still have dark outer stems that contrast noticeably with the inner white where they’ve been cut. The pits on the smallest are elongated and barely open. A few of these, particularly those three on the right, appear to be maturing into the blond form.

Grays often command a slightly higher price in the market place because of their beauty and meatiness, even if their flavor is mild compared to other species.

I also found a few greenies, or pickles, the other day. At first I wasn’t sure what species these were, but Jeremy Faber of Foraged and Found Edibles confirmed them as greenies based on these photos.

Notice the multi-layered stem when cut (at right). Sometimes the stem is so thick it appears solid, as seen in the photo at lower left. To my eye, these morels look quite a bit different from the greenies I saw in the Yukon two years ago, which were considerably larger and darker, with noticeably dense pitting like gray morels. Faber suggested that the lack of moisture this season has prevented this variety from attaining its usual size and coloration. They were scattered in the burn mostly as singletons, with perhaps a dozen in all making it into my bucket.

Some mycologists dispute the existence of greenies, considering them just another form of typical burn morel known in the industry as conica, of which there are probably several hard-to-separate species that require microscopic study and DNA analysis for identification. Still, the greenie familiar to commercial pickers has its own distinct appearance and it’s always the last to show in the burn, if it shows at all. The species that it seems to come closest to in the recent taxonomic reclassification of morels is Morchella capitata, but I wonder whether it’s in fact a species that has yet to be described by science. No doubt the mystery surrounding greenies will be unraveled in coming years as morel classification continues to be a hot topic among mycologists.

So, what about the taste? Unfortunately there wasn’t a conica in sight the other day, and the non-burn morels have been done in my habitat since mid-June. That leaves grays and greenies to duke it out. Most western morel enthusiasts rank the non-burn “natural” black morel as the tastiest, with conica next. Mountain blonds, though beautiful, tend to lack strong flavor, and the early season logging morels are generally derided as unsightly. And those late-flushing burn morels?

I put two grays and two greenies head to head in a summer burn morel taste-off. They got simply sautéed side by side in butter, with a sprinkling of salt. The grays, it must be said, had tremendous texture: meaty, chewy, crisp on the outside. The greenies, however, get the nod for taste. I won’t bore you by waxing grandiloquent like a wine snob. The bottom line is that I was reminded yet again that morels don’t really taste all that much like mushrooms; they taste like something that hasn’t been named yet—a mixture of meat and fungus that pleases the palate with its burst of umami. And for this reason, they made an excellent accompaniment to my first beach-caught salmon of the season, in a summer risotto, along with chard and tomatoes from the garden.

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.

The King of Salmon

A few weeks ago I made a pilgrimage to the Columbia River to pay my respects to the king of spring.

Not to be confused with those porcini mushrooms also called “spring kings,” Columbia River spring Chinook—or springers—are some of the first returning among the Pacific salmon, and many piscivores consider them the best tasting of all the many races and runs of salmon.

Taste is largely subjective, sure, but there’s science behind this conceit. Salmon spawn in the fall and early winter. Because springers enter fresh water so early and must hold on for months before spawning—without eating—these particular fish have evolved to be especially fatty. They survive on their impressive fat stores, and we all know that fat means flavor, right?

The Columbia River spring Chinook fishery is limited and tightly regulated. Anglers can fish the main stem in a few spots as well as tributaries such as the Willamette and Cowlitz. We fished Drano Lake, one of the better known hot spots for springers. Drano is a manmade lake created by the fill left over from the construction of Bonneville Dam. The Little White Salmon River flows into the lake, making it noticeably colder than the mainstem river, so salmon and steelhead nose into it during their upstream migrations for a refreshing breather. The bulk of the fishery is at the lake’s outlet, near a railroad trestle and highway 14 bridge.

We got on the water around 5:15 a.m.—and we weren’t alone. The spring king fishery attracts plenty of early risers hoping to put a slab of deep red salmon fillet on the barbecue. Slowly we trolled across the placid waters of Drano Lake, pulling plugs. By 6:30 it was clear that the bite was not on in the lake, so we joined the “toilet bowl” of boats circling the outlet channel where salmon are forced into a narrow channel as they enter and leave the lake.

We switched to bait: cured shrimp and herring, fished at a depth of about 24 feet to avoid snags on the bottom. Though salmon don’t actively feed once on the spawning grounds, they can still be provoked to strike at a bait or lure—whether out of territoriality or some memory of their predatory oceanic life, no one really knows. We settled into the somnolent rhythm of the counter-clock “toilet bowl” slow-dance. The first hit, at noon, startled me out of my seat. I grabbed the rod and tried to keep the fish away from the other boats. It took line at will. When we had it close to the boat the nerve-wracking moment commenced (we saw more than one lost at the boat during the day). The king got a look and spooked. It ran under the boat and I had to fight it in close with a distressingly bowed rod tip. A couple more short runs and we got it sideways and in the net.

Phil at Mystical Legends provided excellent guiding. Though it was a slow day overall, we got another strike a few hours later and boated that fish too, going two for two, which isn’t a bad hook-to-land ratio when it comes to spring kings. Back home, the first taste was simple, as it should be, to allow the salmon to shine: grilled with a little olive oil and a light sprinkle of salt and pepper. With a fish of this caliber you want to savor every last shred of meat from nose to tail. In my next post I’ll have a recipe for Salmon Head Curry that will have you second-guessing your choice of crab bait.

Razor’s Edge

One of the great pleasures of my foraging workshops is seeing the moment of recognition: that instant when a student uncovers nature’s banquet for the first time. Such moments were repeated many times over this past weekend on Washington’s storm-tossed ocean beaches, as fifteen of us plied the razor clam flats.

I can’t remember back-to-back digs of such abundance. The shows were everywhere, the clams of good size, with a few mossbacks in the mix (clams old and big enough to have dark mottling on the shell and a greenish hue). I managed several approaching six inches, including one just a hair under at 5 7/8. A Pacific razor clam of that length has more meat on it than a quail.

I had to keep explaining to everyone that it wasn’t usually this easy. The sun was out; on Saturday clammers were even walking the beach in t-shirts; and the clams were begging for discovery, with dozens of shows in an area not much larger than a bath tub!

This was my first razor clam class. We rented a house at Seabrook near Pacific Beach for two nights so we could get in two digs and cook up a feast with our catch. The menu included Fried Razor Clams, Razor Clam Chowder, and Pasta alle Vongole, among many other treats.

Digging razor clams is pure fun—and the meal that awaits ain’t bad either. When I got my haul home and fully processed, I decided to try something new. The clam’s siphon has a texture similar to the mantle of a squid, while the foot—or digger, as it’s known—is considerably more tender. A quick stir-fry with some veggies seemed like a worthy departure from the tried-and-true comfort recipes, and it was.

Chinese Stir-fried Razor Clams

1 cup razor clams, cut into 2-inch strips
1 small red bell pepper, cut to match clams
3 – 4 celery stalks, cut to match clams
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1 tbsp ginger, fine dice
1 tbsp garlic, fine dice
2 tbsp peanut oil
2 tbsp sambal olek (pickled chili sauce) *

Marinade
1 1/2 tsp Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry)
1/2 tsp salt

Sauce
1 1/2 tsp white sugar
2 tsp Chinese black vinegar *
1 tsp Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry)
1 1/2 tsp corn starch
3 tbsp chicken stock

 available at most Asian markets and some conventional grocers

1. In a bowl, combine clams with marinade and set aside.

2. Whisk together sauce ingredients in a small bowl.

3. In a wok or large saute pan, heat oil over medium-high heat until not quite smoking. Add sambal olek and stir vigorously, 30 seconds. Add ginger and garlic, continuing to stir until fragrant, about a minute.

4. Add sweet red pepper, celery, and clams. Stir thoroughly, coating with red oil, about 2 minutes. Add sliced green onions. Give sauce a stir and add to wok. Stir well another minute and serve immediately with rice.