Category Archives: plants and herbs

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.

Licorice Fern Liqueur

licorice_fern1As I wrote in a recent issue of Seattle Magazine, now is the time to seek out one of the Pacific Northwest’s most striking ferns for your summertime mixology needs—before it retires for the year. The licorice fern is a beauty that lives in colonies in mixed lower-elevation forests, often well up in the tree canopy.

I typically see it adorning mossy big-leaf maples, where its roots, known as rhizomes, form an interconnected latticework beneath the moss. It will also colonize suitably moss-covered alders, madrones, and even glacial erratics, those big boulders left over from the last Ice Age that sometimes squat unaccountably in the middle of the woods. The key is finding some within reach.

Licorice ferns in abundance will form green waves undulating through the forest until the heat of summer causes the waves to collapse and the individual ferns to whither away. With winter rains they come back to life: just add water.

The flavor of the root is licorice-like, yes, and also spicy like fresh ginger. Infused in water or vodka, it makes a slightly picante syrup or liqueur that will remind you of the mesmerizing glades of spring licorice fern as you sip a thirst-quenching summer cocktail.

1. Peel and chop a few finger-length pieces of licorice fern root.

2. Cover chopped roots in a half-pint canning jar with vodka (for a liqueur) or water (for a syrup).

3. Refrigerate for two to three weeks, shaking every few days.

4. Strain and measure liquid. Make a simple syrup of equal parts water and sugar that is half the amount of reserved liquid. For example, with my 2/3 cup of fern-infused liquid I made a syrup with 1/3 cup water and 1/3 cup sugar. To make the syrup, boil the water and whisk in sugar until fully dissolved. Allow syrup to cool, then add to reserved liquid.

Licorice fern liqueur can jazz up a refreshing glass of soda water, improve a cheap prosecco, or comfortably join the other esoteric mixers at your cocktail bar.

Clay Pot Bulgogi with Wild Greens

IMG_4820The other day I scouted some of my early morel spots to see if there might be anything starting to pop, given the ridiculously mild winter we’ve had in the Pacific Northwest. But no, nada. Seems like the fruiting schedule of morels in my area doesn’t vary much more than a week no matter how much snow falls in the mountains, although pickers down in Oregon have been talking about morels coming up two weeks earlier than usual in some of their patches.

Nevertheless, I came away with something nearly as good for my effort: wild watercress. Watercress is one of the first spring greens of the season, and depending where you live, it often has a second act in the fall. No doubt there are patches in Northern California that produce much of winter. As I plucked the tender leafy shoots, I already knew what I’d be making.

I mostly use my Korean clay pot for Soondubu, but after ordering a dish simply called “Beef Stew” at a local lunch joint recently I realized it was time to branch out. Unlike a typical American beef stew that requires hours of slow cooking, the Korean version can be whipped together in minutes if you marinate the meat in advance. And the presentation in the clay pot earns extra points. Like those miniature cast iron skillets you see in restaurants that make such a cool presentation of clams or mussels, clay pots are used for both cooking and serving.

With a little prepping, this bulgogi stew is easy. It’s essential, however, to marinate the beef for at least an hour beforehand (overnight is even better). I’ve used various marinade recipes for bulgogi and kalbi ribs over the years, including Bittman’s simple version. More traditional recipes call for an Asian pear to help sweeten and tenderize the meat, as in this recipe, although other recipes omit the fruit. As it happens, my local butcher sells thin-sliced beef trimmings already marinated.

A typical clay pot bulgogi will have some sort of leafy green vegetable such as spinach stirred in at the end; this one owes its vibrant color to the wild and very nutritious watercress that’s leafing out across much of the country right now.

1/2 pound marinated bulgogi, preferably thin-sliced ribeye (see marinade recipes above)
1/2 small yellow onion, cut into thin slices (add to marinating meat if desired)
1 cup water
1 cup beef stock or dashi
1 handful cellophane sweet potato noodles, about 5 oz
1 green onion, sliced
1 handful fresh wild greens such as watercress, bittercress, dandelions, lambs-quarters
Other optional ingredients: shiitake or enoki mushrooms, sliced carrots, egg

1. Add cellophane noodles to a bowl of warm water and set aside for 20 minutes.

2. Heat clay pot (or conventional pot) over high heat, then add beef and onions and stir-fry a couple minutes until the meat is lightly browned.

3. Add water and stock. If using a clay pot, leave enough room for noodles.

4. Once boiling, stir in pre-softened noodles and cook until tender.

5. When noodles are ready, stir in wild greens and green onion and remove from heat.

Serves 2 with rice.

Wild Greens Workshop

heyday_farm2It’s that time again for those of us on the West Coast. The woods and meadows are waking up. Wild greens—tasty, nutritious, free—decorate the woods and forest fringes.

To ring in the spring harvest, I’ll be teaching a foraging and cooking workshop at Heyday Farm on Bainbridge Island on March 27, with a focus on wild spring greens, especially stinging nettles. As I’ve said here before, nettles are the backbone of my spring foraging. I use nettles in soups, pastas, and sauces, and I put up large quantities of nettle pesto to have on hand year-round.

At Heyday, we’ll spend the morning foraging in the woods around the farm, learning about and harvesting what’s in season. Back at the historic Heyday Farm kitchen and farmhouse, we’ll learn several ways to pair and prepare our catch. The class will include a satisfying lunch. Cost is $110. Please sign up through Bainbridge Island Parks and Recreation, or by calling (206) 842-2306.

The Nagoonberry

nagoon1I have a favorite new berry. It’s called a nagoonberry. Haven’t heard of nagoonberries? Well, you’re not alone—and you probably don’t spend much time in Alaska, where I happen to be right now.

Here in Cordova, just about everyone knows the nagoonberry. And now that I do, too, I could be persuaded to journey north just to get my hands on these delicious “arctic raspberries,” never mind the salmon fishing.

The nagoonberry, Rubus arcticus, is a wine-red relative of blackberries and raspberries that grows in northern climates around the world, from Alaska and Canada to Finland, Scandinavia, and Russia. The name comes from Tlingit Indian “neigóon,” meaning little jewels that pop from the ground. The low-lying plant, with its three-lobed, serrated leaves, hugs boggy terrain on both the coast and interior of Alaska. They’re not prolific, though I’ve been told that berry-pickers in Cordova gather good quantities for jam, liqueur, and fruit leather. The flavor belies its geographical distribution with a tropical Hawaiian Punch twist on a typical blackberry.

By late August, the pickings around Cordova are slim, but yesterday there were still enough ripe nagoonberries in the wet, mossy meadows just off the roadside to give me a taste of something totally new. And now I’m hooked. These berries are something special and worth seeking out if you’re in the North Country.

Wild Berry Scones







If you live in the Pacific Northwest and haven’t picked your fair share of trailing blackberries and red huckleberries yet…best hurry up. They’re mostly done at sea level now, and with this heat they’re likely ready to close up shop in the Cascade foothills soon.

wrote about red huckleberryVaccinium parvifolium, earlier this year in Seattle Magazine. Tart and pretty, it’s the first of our huckleberries to fruit in the Pacific Northwest. The trailing blackberry, Rubus ursinus, deserves ink too. It’s smaller and firmer in comparison to non-native relatives such as the ubiquitous Himalayan blackberry, with a more complex taste profile. Unlike other varieties, trailing blackberries don’t grow on upright canes; they snake along the ground and over deadfall  (see photo above), hence their common name.

Together, red hucks and trailing blackberries are a pastry chef’s dream team. Both species are usually present in the same woods and ripen at roughly the same time (generally throughout July in my habitat), which means you can target both in a single outing.

Apparently it’s a poor year for trailing blackberries, at least on a commercial level. Most of the blackberries I put up for winter are non-native varieties, the Himalayan blackberry in particular, because they happen to be plentiful around where I live, but if I wanted to pick a good quantity of the native variety, I’d head over to the Olympic Peninsula and start poking around in old clearcuts. All blackberries thrive in areas of disturbance (e.g., logged or burned forests, along trails and roadsides, in abandoned lots). The patches with more sunlight will produce heavier crops, which is why old clearcuts are a good choice.

*  *  *

I usually rely on my mother-in-law for scones. She mails them to us every now and again in carefully packed boxes. But the other day, while taking a group on a wild food ID walk in the foothills, I couldn’t get the image of berry-laden scones out of my head, so I went back the next day to collect some of the bounty on colorful display, determined to make my own scones.

I wasn’t the only forager in the woods. I see bears in this area every year at about this time, within 20 miles of downtown Seattle. A hiker I met on the trail was concerned about the hand-scrawled warning note (at left). I assured him the bears were too busy enjoying berries to worry about his skinny ass, but he didn’t seem convinced.

Here’s a recipe for scones that I cobbled together from a few online offerings. Since I didn’t have buttermilk, I substituted yogurt whisked with a little milk. If you like sweet scones, add more sugar.

2 cups flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
3 heaping tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup wild berries
1/2 cup yogurt
2 tbsp milk
2 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp lemon zest (optional)

1. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Sift dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, sugar, salt) together into a large bowl.

3. Whisk together wet ingredients (yogurt, milk, and 1 egg) in a medium bowl.

4.  Cut cold butter into small pieces and, using fingers, work into dry ingredients until mealy. Stir in berries, optional lemon zest, and wet ingredients until barely mixed, with a little of the dry flour remaining in bottom of bowl.

5. Remove to a floured work surface. Briefly knead dough so it holds together and forms a disk several inches in diameter and about an inch thick. The dough will be wet and you’ll be reminded of making mud pies as a kid—don’t fret! Cut a dozen or so wedges out of the disk and place on a greased baking pan. You may need to use a pie knife or spatula to transfer wedges from work surface to pan.

6. Whisk second egg and brush egg wash on wedges.

7. Bake until golden brown and cooked through, about 25 minutes. Cool on wire rack.

The Berry Hour

salal1It’s berry time. I took a group of would-be foragers out to a state forest the other day, and they were amazed by the diversity of berries available for harvest right now. In fact, I had to crack the whip a few times to keep the gang moving, so entranced were they by the sweet bounty available trailside.

Red huckleberries and trailing blackberries (the native blackberry of the Pacific Northwest, Rubus ursinus) are at their peak. Non-native Himalayan blackberries are ripening in sunny spots and will be abundant in a couple weeks. Thimbleberries are past their peak at lower elevations, but you can go higher and find them in good shape. We also found blackcap raspberries, which I don’t see as frequently as some of the other species. A number of others that get overlooked by the average berry picker were ripening in forest openings, such as Oregon grape and salal (pictured at top), and will continue to be available deep into summer; though a challenge to the palate right off the vine, with a little processing and some added sugar, they can make excellent preserves, sauces, and leathers.

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a new book that provides in-depth information on just about all the wild berry-producing plants and trees you’re likely to find in the region, native and otherwise. T. Abe Lloyd and Fiona Hamersley Chambers’ Wild Berries of Washington and Oregon collects into a single volume more than fifty groups of berry-bearing plants, including well known varieties such as blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries, and serviceberries—and lesser-knowns: hawthorns, crowberries, hackberries, and many more.

I’ve often wondered about the tempting red berries of the mountain-ash, Sorbus spp. The authors begin their entry on the genus, “The bitter-tasting fruits of these trees are high in vitamin C and can be eaten raw, cooked or dried.” Apparently, a number of tribes in my area used them to “marinate meat such as marmot or to flavor salmon head soup,” and they’re also used in jellies, jams, pies, ale, and a bittersweet wine. The final verdict on edibility: Edible, but not great.

Many others, however, get two thumbs up. The text is sprinkled with recipes for making jams, jellies, syrups, cordials, dressings, leathers, pies, cobblers, and muffins, and the authors also offer updated culinary twists for old standbys such as the Native American energy food pemmican, retooled to use huckleberries or serviceberries mixed with beef jerky and nuts.

Flipping through Wild Berries of Washington and Oregon got me so revved up for summer’s bounty that I braved the I-90 floating bridge closure yesterday and visited some of my favorite berry patches. Stay tuned for a Wild Berry Scone recipe next week.

Wild Tempura Udon







Alas, Puget Sound’s recreational spot shrimp season came and went without me wetting a pot. I dredged the freezer instead and found a frosty package from last May. And you know what? They were still shrimpalicious.

Spot shrimp (Pandalus platyceros) rank among the great delicacies my region is known for. Year-old crustaceans are not optimum, true, yet these spotties retained the sweetness that is characteristic of the species. Tempura battered and fried, they made an excellent addition to udon.

After learning in April just how easy it is to make a killer udon at home, I’ve been enjoying this traditional Japanese noodle soup a couple times a week with a variety of foraged greens and mushrooms. This version is my favorite so far. It has three wild ingredients: spot shrimp, oyster mushrooms, and devil’s club shoots. (Click here for the basic udon soup recipe.)

I’ve played with a number of tempura recipes over the years. In general, I prefer to leave tempura to the professionals (and their fry-o-later equipment), but every now and then I get a yen to make it myself. The key is to make sure the batter is wet and runny, which makes for a light and crispy finish. Too thick and the batter will fry up pillowy. This is a basic recipe that can be adapted. For instance, you could add a dash of rice wine or various spices. Experiment with the oil temperature, too. It needs to be hot enough to fry the ingredients rapidly, but not so hot that they aren’t cooked through before the exterior browns. Slice ingredients such as sweet potatoes thinly so they cook quickly.

1 cup flour, sifted
1 egg, beaten
1 cup water, ice cold
oil for deep-frying
shrimp and vegetables (e.g., zucchini, sweet potato, onion, mushroom, etc.)

1. Heat oil in a wok or deep saucepan. It’s ready when a drop of water sizzles. Adjust heat as you go.

2. Combine flour, beaten egg, and ice water in a large bowl and use chopsticks to mix together. Don’t overmix. It’s okay to have lumps. And make sure the batter is thin, wet, and runny.

3. Batter and fry in batches, careful not to crowd.

4. Remove to rack or paper towels.

The Firtini

fir4I see a three-firtini lunch in my future…

Believe it or not, the new growth of many conifers, even pine trees, is edible. Certain species of fir and spruce are the most sought after for their tender and fragrant tips, and in my woods they’re showing right now.

Simply chopped and sautéed in butter with mushrooms or potatoes, fir and spruce tips bring the forest right into your kitchen, with wafting evergreen aromas and the evocation of cool mountain shade. Infusions are another crowd-pleaser. You can use the pungent tips to infuse stock, cream, or alcohol. At the Herbfarm I’ve enjoyed a champagne cordial infused with a small shot of spruce extract.

For this drink, I first turned to The Wild Table for a quick primer on infusing alcohol with Douglas fir tips. Earlier this year I had the good fortune to be seated next to Connie Green at the Oregon Truffle Fest‘s big dinner. Connie owns Wine Forest Wild Foods in the Napa Valley. Her cookbook collects decades of experience in the foraging and restaurant communities of Northern California. Connie’s instructions for infusing vodka with fir tips appear below.

1 cup Douglas fir tips
1 750 ml bottle of vodka

1. In a blender, combine fir tips with 1/3 bottle of vodka and blend for 2 minutes. Pour into a quart-sized jar. Empty remaining vodka into blender, swirling around to capture fir tip residue and add into same jar. Seal jar, shake, and refrigerate for 1 week.

2. Strain fir-infused vodka, first through a fine mesh strainer, then through a strainer lined with folded cheesecloth, and finally through a coffee filter for maximum clarity. The coffee filter will take a while, but this is how to get the most appealing result.*

3. Keep fir-infused vodka in fridge or freezer.

While the concoction was steeping, I checked in with my friend Andrew who has perfected a number of wild liqueurs and tinctures over the years. He advised me to allow the infused vodka to rest in between steps during the straining process, so that floating particulates can settle on the bottom. “The last step [with the coffee filter] may take several hours,” he said. “But the end result is totally clean.” You’re left with a beautifully translucent, evergreen-tinted final batch. Pour this back into your vodka bottle.

To make a Firtini, add fir-infused vodka to a shaker with ice and a splash of elderflower syrup. Garnish with a tip.

* The photo at top depicts a jar of fir-tip vodka that’s only a day into the infusion process and hasn’t been strained through a coffee filter (I couldn’t wait!), resulting in a more opaque cocktail. You can see the settling of the fir sediment in the jar. When ready to strain, don’t disturb this settled layer of sediment.

Sichuan Pickled Fiddleheads with Ground Pork

fiddle6The fiddlehead window is closing quick. Seems like they were up a week earlier than recent past seasons, and lowland ferns are mostly fronded out by now. I went higher to get my pickling supply, to about 2,000-ft elevation, and filled a 10-pound bag.

Most of these fiddleheads will be pickled either in an Asian refrigerator style that doesn’t require processing (and maintains the bright green color) or this way. That is, once I get around to the odious task of cleaning them.

Some will get cooked too. Simply sautéed in butter is a good strategy. I also like my fiddleheads in Eastern preparations.

I’ve posted a number of Asian fiddlehead recipes over the years, two of my favorites being the above mentioned quick pickles and Sichuan dry-fried. The recipe here combines elements of both. I used Fuchsia Dunlop’s pickling recipe and then stir-fried the pickled fiddleheads with a little ground pork, Sichuan peppercorns, and dried chile peppers (see Land of Plenty).

The result is easily my favorite new fiddlehead recipe.

First, you’ll need to pickle some fiddleheads (a minimum half-pound) in the Sichuan style.

Sichuan Pickled Vegetables

1 quart-sized jar with lid
2 1/4 cup water
1/4 cup rock or sea salt
4 dried chiles
1/2 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 tsp rice wine
1/2 star anise
1 tbsp brown sugar
1-inch piece of unpeeled ginger
1/3 cinnamon stick
1 lb or more vegetables, such as string beans, slice carrot, daikon radish, etc.

1. Dissolve salt in boiling water and set aside to cool.

2. Add pickling spices to jar and add cooled water. Cover and shake to mix.

3. Fill jar with vegetables (e.g., fiddleheads), making sure brine covers them. Tighten lid and put aside in a cool, dark place for a minimum 24 hours; a week is better. You can continue to replenish the jar with vegetables by adding more salt, sugar, and wine.

Pickled Fiddleheads with Ground Pork

1/2 lb Sichuan pickled fiddleheads (see pickling recipe above)
1/4 lb ground pork
1/2 tsp rice wine
1/2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp peanut oil
3-4 dried chiles, halved and deseeded
1/2 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns

1. Mix pork with rice wine, soy sauce, and salt in a small bowl.

2. Add 1 tbsp oil to wok over high heat until smoking. Add pork and stir-fry until dry and crumbly, a few minutes. Return meat to bowl.

3. Add 1 tbsp oil to wok over medium heat and quickly stir-fry Sichuan peppercorns and chiles until fragrant, careful not to burn, less than a minute. Add pickled fiddleheads and cooked pork into wok and continue stir-frying another couple minutes. Fiddleheads should remain tightly scrolled; serve before they start to unwind in the wok.

Serves 2 with another dish and rice, or 4 with a few additional dishes.

The other day I stir-fried some fresh fiddleheads in a very different Sichuan preparation, one relying on what is known as a fragrant fermented sauce (based on the mixture of sweet bean paste and soy sauce). This sauce is especially good with a simple stir-fry of beef or pork slivers with thinly sliced bell pepper, a popular dish all over Sichuan Province.

For my improvised version (see above), I stir-fried pressed seasoned tofu cut into cubes along with the fiddleheads, thin-sliced rounds of carrot, and flowering chives cut into 3-inch sections. It was delicious, but now I understand why the fragrant fermented sauce is most frequently encountered with slivers of meat and vegetables. Because of the large and varying shapes of my ingredients, rather than bathed in a comforting brown gravy, they were spotted with oily blots and most of the sauce drained to the bottom of the dish in a dark slick.

At least I have plenty of fiddleheads on hand to continue my experiments with this fleeting taste of spring.