Category Archives: pickling

Wild Ramp Aioli

ramp1Every year for Memorial Day weekend our family goes camping with several other families in a beautiful canyon in the rain shadow of the Cascades, where we have a decidedly better shot at some sun.

The food is always over the top. In past years we’ve barbecued a whole pig, grilled Copper River salmon over the fire, dug holes in the ground for Dutch ovens to make Chicken in the Dirt, and prepared all sorts of appetizers and dinners with our foraged morels and spring porcini.

But the dish that everyone seems to clamor for most is an elaborate concoction of smoked baby potatoes with black garlic vinaigrette and wild ramp aioli. (Ramps are a type of wild leek that grows east of the Rockies.) For years I thought my friend J had invented this carnival of flavors, but it turns out the Danish expat by way of San Francisco picked up the recipe during his Bay Area years, from a little joint you may have heard of called Bar Tartine.

I don’t normally have the patience to put all those pieces together into a single dish. Instead I wait for its fireside appearance each spring, knowing J can’t go without. The ramp aioli by itself, however, is right in my wheelhouse, so when I got a message from my mushroom hunting pal David saying that some fresh ramps were coming my way, compliments of his employer Earthy Delights, I knew just what to do.

ramp4This wasn’t my first brush with ramps. I’ve seen plenty while picking morels back east. Ramps are beloved in the Appalachians, especially in West Virginia where nearly every little mountain town has a ramp festival, and in the northern woods of Michigan. On my last visit to the Upper Peninsula I picked ramps with friends from Marquette. But that was a while ago, and if there’s one wild food I wished was native to the Pacific Northwest, the ramp would be near the top of the list.

To make this wild ramp aioli I used pickled ramps. The recipe is a conflation of Earthy Delight’s version and Tartine’s. You can use fresh ramps, too, and in a few weeks I plan to update this post after using ramps that are currently fermenting in my basement, which is the method that my friend J and Bar Tartine prefer.

ramp23 pickled or fermented ramps*, with tops**
1/2 tsp dried mustard
1/2 tsp peppercorns
1/2 tsp apple cider vinegar
2 tsp lemon juice
1 egg yolk
1/3 cup grapeseed or canola oil
2 tbsp olive oil
salt to taste

1. Place food processor bowl and blade in freezer for 15 minutes if possible.

2. Chop ramps. (I used previously pickled ramp bulbs and fresh tops—see notes below.)

3. Add chopped ramps, dried mustard, peppercorns, cider vinegar, lemon juice, and egg yolk to food processor and process until well mixed together, about 30 seconds.

4. Combine oils and slowly add to processor. Ingredients should thicken to a mayo-like consistency. Continue to add oil. Add salt to taste and more lemon juice or vinegar if necessary.

5. Refrigerate in a tightly sealed container.

Makes enough to fill a 6-oz jelly jar.

The ramp aioli will have the rich flavor and creamy consistency of a typical aioli or mayonnaise, but with the added garlicky bite of wild ramps. Using just the yolk and not the egg white will give it more body. For a chunkier aioli with flecks of bright green ramp tops, don’t over-process (unlike mine pictured above).

* Pickled Ramps recipe:

1lb ramps
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 tsp mustard seed
1 tsp coriander seed
1 tsp fennel seed
2 tsp mixed peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp salt

1. Cut off root tips from ramps and trim leaves, leaving just a little green. Reserve tops for another use. Rinse ramps.

2. Blanche trimmed ramps in a pot of salted boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove and quickly shock under cold tap. Pat dry and place in a pint-sized canning jar.

3. Combine pickling ingredients in saucepan and bring to a boil. Pour over ramps and set aside to cool. Seal tightly and refrigerate up to two months.

** If using fresh ramps for the aioli, cut off the tops (the green leaves) and then blanche the tops in boiling water for 30 seconds, shock under cold tap, and squeeze out excess water before adding to food processor.

Quick Asian Pickled Fiddleheads

Here on the West Coast, we pamper our ladies. Fie on you East Coasters with your easy-to-please ostriches! Alas, it is true: lady fern fiddleheads, should we not treat them with the utmost care and respect, can leave a bitter taste in the mouth, their delicate beauty notwithstanding.

Bitterness. It’s a state of mind, you say. Bitter is as bitter does. Easy for an ostrich eater to say. The fact is, us West Coasters have no choice but to pamper. It’s part of the contract. Otherwise we’re sure to be disappointed. It happens in restaurants all the time. “They looked so cool on the plate…I thought they’d taste better.”

The bitterness in ladies varies significantly from patch to patch, for reasons that I can’t begin to understand. If you find a patch of lady fern fiddleheads that’s less bitter than others, hold tight to that patch!

The next best thing is to use them accordingly. Like with this very simple pickling recipe. It’s a “quick pickle” deal. I’ve used other pickling recipes in the past for fiddleheads, but this is my new favorite for its ease, texture (i.e. crunch), and a perfect balance between salt and sweet. Perhaps more importantly, any bitterness is miraculously vaporized in the marriage of flavors.  One of the benefits of the quick pickle method is that the fiddleheads aren’t subjected to a withering hot water bath. The obvious downside is that you can’t keep them on hand for months at a time, at least I don’t think you can. So far I haven’t been able to keep any on hand for more than a couple days.

2 packed cups fiddleheads, cleaned
1 cup rice vinegar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
2 half-pint jars

A note on cleaning fiddleheads: It’s imperative that you remove as much of the brown, hairy, and bitter-tasting sheath that adorns the fiddlehead as possible. The easiest way to do this is to first run the fiddleheads under a strong tap, then immerse in a bowl of water and work them with your fingers, emptying and filling the bowl periodically to discard the residue. Finally, clean each fiddlehead individually between thumb and forefinger for a few seconds. The cleaner the better. Neatly trim the ends afterward.

1. In a pot of salted water, parboil cleaned fiddleheads for 1 minute. Drain and shock in cold water before draining again and removing to paper towels.

2. Mix pickling brine of rice vinegar, salt, and sugar.

3. Pack 2 half-pint jars with fiddleheads and cover with pickling brine. Refrigerate overnight.

Pickled Kelp

Recently I camped out with the family at Deception Pass State Park, one of the true gems in Washington State’s park system. While beach combing and fishing for humpies, we came across a six-foot long strand of bull whip kelp (Nereocyctis luetkeana) that had washed ashore. The kelp looked like it was still in good shape (it didn’t have the white splotches characteristic of an over-the-hill specimen), so we bagged it up and took it home.

Healthy kelp forests are the old-growth stands of the ocean. A hundred feet or more in length from sea floor to surface, they support a diversity of life. I’ve seen this diversity first-hand while free-diving in Puget Sound. Lingcod, greenling, and rockfish forage among the kelp forests; sea otters, seals, and other critters seek refuge from predators; and countless invertebrates make their homes there.

Our find immediately put me in mind of Jennifer Hahn and her wonderfully useful and poetic Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine. Hahn calls seaweeds the “most nutritious vegetables on Earth”—and the only vegetables that dance: “They jump and jerk to the bass thunder of waves. They shimmy and shake to the ebb and flood tide.” I just knew she would have a good recipe for the kelp. Sure enough, when we got home I thumbed through my copy and found this recipe for pickled kelp.

I’ve eaten plenty of kelp pickles over the years but never actually made  them myself. For this recipe, imagine a typical bread-and-butter pickle, with its crunch and spicy sweetness, and add to it a subtle hint of the sea. After tasting these pickles, you’ll look at a seaweed-strewn beach in a whole new way.

I cut Jennifer’s recipe in half since my strand of kelp was on the small side, and I probably could have cut it in half again.

2 cups kelp rings
1 1/2 cups white vinegar
1 clove garlic, diced
1 1/2 tbsp pickling spice
2 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1/2 red onion, cut in crescents

1. Make the brine. Mix vinegar, garlic, spices, and white sugar in a sauce pan. Set aside.
2. Cut the kelp into foot-long sections. Peel each section with a potato peeler.
3. Slice each peeled section into 1/4-inch rings.
4. Add the kelp rings into the brine and set aside for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
5. After brining for 2 hours, boil contents for 5 minutes.
6. Spoon kelp rings and juice into canning jars and process in hot water bath for 10 minutes.

The pickles cure in three weeks, although we couldn’t wait; after just a week in the jar they tasted darn good and brought back fine memories of a sunny long weekend at the beach.

Note: check state and local regulations before harvesting seaweeds. In Washington it’s only legal to harvest beached bull whip kelp; cutting a living kelp stipe is illegal.

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.

Putting Up Porcini

If you want to pick mountain porcini, you best keep your ear to the wall. No one casually gives up their patches of porcini. It’s hard enough to predict where and when the buggers will fruit as it is.

Here in the Cascades we get two, possibly three distinct fruitings of porcini: the spring variety, which is now officially known as Boletus rex-veris; and the summer/fall varieties, which might be distinct from each other but get lumped in together as a single species with the famous porcini of Italy, Boletus edulis. All varieties are deserving of their nickname “king bolete.” With their firm flesh and nutty flavor, they might be my favorite wild mushrooms of all.

A couple weeks ago while picking huckleberries I got a tip from some hikers that a lot of mushrooms were fruiting to the south. The next day I hopped in the car and made an educated guess about where to go. Mountain porcini like high elevations, and they’re picky about tree composition. True firs and spruce are the ticket. After a three-mile hike I started to see them—first some blown-out flags in the sunny areas and then fetching number one buttons emerging out of the duff in more shaded spots.

When picking porcini, always make sure to field dress them right away. I trim the end to check for worm holes, then cut the mushroom in half. Often a pristine looking bolete will show signs of bugs once you slice it open, but the infestations will just as often be local to a small area of the cap or stem that can be trimmed away. Whatever you do, don’t simply put a porcino in your basket to trim later at home. I’ve learned the hard way that a basketful of beautiful buttons can be a worm-ridden mess by the time you get home if you don’t deal with the bugs immediately.

By the end of the day I had nearly 10 pounds of mostly perfect porcini buttons (having thrown away twice that amount as too far gone). What a dilemma! I had more porcini than I could use. Some I cooked, some I gave away, and the rest got pickled.

Pia’s Pickled Porcini

My friend Cora, who stars in the morel hunting chapter of Fat of the Land the book, passed this recipe along to me from his father’s cousin, who lives in Cortemiglia, Italy. She gathers 20 to 50 pounds of porcini annually, so putting up some is a must.

2 cups white vinegar
2 oz water
2 tsp salt
extra light olive oil
1/2 tsp peppercorns per jar

Clean and quarter porcini buttons. Bring vinegar, water, and salt to boil. Cook porcini in batches, no more than 3 minutes per batch. Drain on paper towels and set aside to dry for at least 8 hours. Pack sterilized jars with porcini and peppercorns, then fill with extra light olive oil (use safflower oil if keeping more than 6 months).

Pickled Sea Beans

A couple weekends ago I attended an oyster fest on Samish Bay complete with sea kayaks, local beer, midnight skinny-dip, and a bluegrass band that retired fireside to play late-night requests. Good times. In addition to being fed ridiculous quantities of fresh oysters, clams, Dungeness crab, and salmon, the beach boasted a patch of sea beans stretching for hundreds of yards. The property owner, who runs ACME seafood, told me to have at it. We packed my daughter’s sand pail the next morning before driving home.

Sea beans (Salicornia sp.) are known by many names: beach asparagus, glasswort, pickleweed, samphire. They’re a succulent, salt-tolerant plant that grows along beaches, marshes, and mangroves around the world. In my region we find sea beans near the high tide mark along sandy or pebbly beaches. Fresh, they make a crunchy snack while clamming, and retain that pleasing crunch even after cooking. The flavor, if it can be called that, is subtle, a salty taste of the sea with a hint of wild green. I like sauteed sea beans mostly for the texture, the bright color, and the salt, as in an oyster succotash.

Sea beans also make an excellent garnish. Pickling them means you can have sea beans whenever inspiration strikes. I looked around for pickling recipes, of which there are few, and settled on two styles: Far East and Southwest.

Spicy Pickled Sea Beans

For the Southwest I adapted a fairly standard pickling recipe for spicy green beans:

4 handfuls sea beans
4 red chiles
6 garlic cloves
pinch peppercorns per jar
pinch coriander seeds per jar
pinch mustard seeds per jar
4 sprigs fresh dill
1 1/4 cup water
1 1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1. Sterilize jars and lids in boiling water.

2. When jars are cool enough to handle, add pinches of coriander, mustard, and peppercorns. Pack half full with sea beans. Insert chiles, garlic cloves, and dill around outside edges. Finish packing with sea beans.

3. Bring water and vinegar to a boil. Ladle over the sea beans leaving about 1/2-inch head space. Wipe jar edge clean and screw on sterilized lids.

4. Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Remove and allow to cool completely at room temperature. Check lids for proper seal. Store for at least one month before using to allow flavors to develop.

Yields 2 pints.

Asian Pickled Sea Beans

For the Far East I used Matt Wright’s recipe.

sea beans
rice vinegar
1 tbsp sugar per cup of vinegar
3 1-inch slices ginger per jar
1 star anise per jar

Figure on using at least 1 cup of vinegar for 2 half-pint jars. Oh, and rice vinegar and rice wine vinegar are essentially the same thing, in case you were wondering.

1. Sterilize jars and lids in boiling water.

2. When jars are cool enough to handle, pack with sea beans. Insert ginger slices around edges and a single star anise at top.

3. Bring rice vinegar and sugar to a boil. Ladle over the sea beans leaving about 1/2-inch head space. Wipe jar edge clean and screw on sterilized lids.

4. Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Remove and allow to cool completely at room temperature. Check lids for proper seal. Store for at least a few days before using to allow flavors to develop.

Word of warning: If you don’t own a dedicated canner with a rack (i.e. you use a big ‘ol pot instead, like me) be very careful with your jars to avoid breakage. I discovered this the hard way. Because the contents of the jars—the sea beans—are packed cold, your jars can experience a terrible fate called thermal shock and pop their bottoms off. Not pleasant. Keep the jars in the hot sterilization water until ready, pack them, don’t overscrew the lids (you know what I mean), then place carefully in the pot before bringing to a boil. In restaurant/software speak, this is called a “soft launch.”

And don’t forget to use any leftover sea beans post-pickling. They make a salty garnish, or you can saute them in butter and garlic with a drizzle of lemon juice for a side dish. To leech out some of the salt, try blanching and shocking in two changes of water.

Pickled Fiddleheads

If you live in the Seattle area, next time you’re at a farmers market look for the Foraged and Found Edibles booth and pick up a copy of Christina Choi’s Wild Foods Recipe Calendar, with illustrations by Emily Counts. This month-by-month catalog of the Pacific Northwest’s wild cornucopia is a treasure trove of recipes and information. Oh, and take a gander at Christina’s new blog too, Nettletown.

I tried the Pickled Fiddleheads recipe first.

1 lb fiddleheads, cleaned
2 lemons
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups wine vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp kosher salt
8-inch piece wild ginger (optional)
1 tsp whole black pepper
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp whole allspice
1/2 lb shallots, sliced 1/8 inch thick
4 pint jars with lids and screwcaps, sterilized

1. Remove strips of lemon zest with a peeler, then juice lemons.
2. Pack fiddleheads tightly into canning jars, layered with shallots and lemon zest.
3. Bring to boil water, vinegar, lemon juice, sugar, salt, spices, and optional ginger.
4. Pour over fiddleheads so that liquid reaches to within a 1/4 inch of rim, then secure lids and process in hot water bath for 10 minutes.

The biggest challenge of fiddleheads isn’t finding and picking them—that’s relatively easy once you have an understanding of their habitat (moist woodlands, stream banks, swampy areas). No, the hardest part is cleaning the curly little buggers. (Before and after photos above.) Fiddleheads emerge out of an underground root system in tight, sheathed coils. The choicest fiddleheads are those closest to emergence, which also means those dressed in the shaggiest coats.

Here’s a cleaning tip: Use two large bowls filled with water. Soak your fiddleheads in one and use the other as a rinsing dish. The chaff will come off easily enough with a little rubbing. When chaff begins to accumulate in your rinsing bowl, strain it out. This tedious sink-side work will be paid off handsomely with a pickled batch of springtime.