Category Archives: rambling

Fancy Foothill Treats

No, I didn’t bag a succulent spring lamb in the foothills, just the fiddleheads and nettle sauce. The reawakening is moving steadily higher into the mountains, bringing with it culinary goodies that have mostly played out down here at sea level.

For instance, stinging nettles are past their prime around Seattle now. Any taller than a foot or so and they become fibrous, with tougher stems and leaves that can be grainy. But in the foothills above 1,000 feet in elevation they’re young and tender. Of course, your mileage may vary. Further south in the Sierra you would need to go higher.

Same goes for the fiddleheads, and this topic deserves some further discussion. While I can’t speak to ostrich ferns of the eastern U.S., if you’re foraging lady fern fiddleheads, make sure you get them at the earliest possible stage, when they’ve just emerged from the root cluster and are no more than an inch or two above the ground (see image at right). Sometimes I’ll take them a little higher if the fiddleheads are still tightly coiled, but you want to avoid those specimens that have already started to unwind. The further along in the development, the more apt to be bitter. Also, it’s worth remembering that fully leafed-out fern fronds are actually toxic.

Here’s another tip when harvesting fiddleheads: Soak them in water back at home for a few minutes before removing the papery sheaf. The chaff is easier to rub off when wet.

For this meal I took advantage of a few rambles about town and in the woods. I got the lamb chops from a local butcher, who sources from a small-scale farm. The fiddleheads and nettles came from the foothills. Mint I found growing wild while walking around the neighborhood. I grilled the lamb chops and topped with a creamy nettle-mint sauce. The fiddleheads I boiled for 5 minutes and sauteed in butter. (The following night I sauteed the fiddleheads with chopped shallot and finished with cream and a splash of cognac.)

Nettle-Mint Sauce

Handful of blanched stinging nettles, roughly chopped
Handful of fresh mint, blanched 5 seconds and shocked in cold water
1 shallot, rough cut
3-4 heaping tbsp plain yogurt
lemon juice squeezed from 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup olive oil, more or less

Process all these ingredients in a food processor. I don’t have exact measurements because I pretty much eyeballed it. You want the sauce to be creamy, not pasty like pesto. Hence the yogurt. You can adjust the strength of the mint or nettle flavor however you want. This is just a start; tweak the recipe to your forager’s heart’s content.

I also spied some oyster mushrooms feasting on a dead alder tree during my foothills ramble. Though too small to be harvested, I know their zip code and will be back.

To Eat or Not To Eat?

I pulled the same stunt last year. Got all worked up by my online pals down in P-Town who were finding big, beautiful specimens of Morchella esculenta, the yellow morel, along the brushy banks of the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

Unfortunately, yellows are hardly present up here in the Puget trough, possibly because of the carnage inflicted by the Vashon Glacier 15,000 years ago, when its recession (oops, bad word) left soil deposits here that don’t agree with this particular species of morel. (That’s my theory, at least.) Instead, most of us Seattlites suffering from morel madness jump over the mountains to scour river channels and ridges east of the Cascades, where we find black morels.

But it’s still cold over there! As I discovered Wednesday. Lotsa snow left on Snoqualmie Pass, and the cottonwoods are just starting to bud out, looking redder than green at 70 mph on the Mass Pike…er…I-90. They say it’s time to hunt morels when the cottonwood leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear. Booshoo! (as we say in underage company). This is a mouse’s ear ^^. We’ve still got two weeks before this area produces.

Another indicator is our lovely wake-robin, the western trillium. These were just starting to bloom, only a few up that I saw. Spring is barely sproinging in these parts. The ground looks matted, like it just woke up after a rough night. Cold winds whistled up the river, sending yellow-rumped warblers into cartwheeling feats of treehopping.


All I found were a bunch of these here false morels, Verpa bohemica, a good warmup drill but hardly worth the drive. I picked ’em anyway. Maybe this would be the year I finally screw up the courage to eat the verpas. Some folks do. Some folks love ’em. Me? I don’t like the idea of ingesting anything spiked with rocket fuel. That’s right, false morels, snowbank morels, and other relatives of the true morels are known to contain a compound called monomethylhydrazine, a component of rocket fuel.

Apparently this compound has been implicated in a few deaths. There’s a story of a French chef keeling over dead in his kitchen simply because he was overtaken by the fumes of false morels sautéing in a pan. Some have suggested the harmful toxins are more prevalent in certain regions, that our western North American varieties don’t have the same levels as elsewhere. Others have said phooey altogether, that there will always be a few people who are allergic to wild foods and there’s nothing to be done for it so eat up. If you’re worried, they say, cook your false morels outside where ventilation isn’t a problem. My question: rocket fuel notwithstanding, can they be worse than a box of Fruity Pebbles?

By the way, you can tell a verpa from a true morel in two main ways: the cap margin of the verpa doesn’t connect to the stem, instead hanging unattached like a skirt; and if you slice it open lengthwise, you’ll see a bunch of cottony stuff inside, while true morels are completely hollow.

Meanwhile, my stash of verpas continues to taunt me. They’ve been sitting in a bowl on the kitchen counter for two days laughing at me. It’s like a bowlful of frightening clowns.

So here’s what I want to know: Do you eat false morels? Do you know someone who does—or won’t? Answer the poll at the top right of the page and pass it along to your friends.

Predators and Prey

During my scouting mission I saw two small herds of elk. They were feeding in hidden meadows along the flood plain and quickly retreated to heavier timber as I got closer. On my way out of the woods I came upon a probable cougar kill: just a couple of gnawed hooves left over and thatches of hair. I looked around, over my shoulder. A scene like this never fails to register with me. Creepy-crawlies down the spine, lodging in the pit of my stomach. The modern mind can rationalize its continued existence with statistics and probabilities all it wants; the reptilian brainstem still knows there are eyes beyond the ring of firelight, eyes and sharp teeth and claws.

Reminds me of Doug Peacock’s great aphorism of the wild: “It ain’t wilderness unless there’s a critter out there that can kill you and eat you.”

That’s cold comfort in your sleeping bag at night—but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Going Rogue

I’m back from the Rogue River Canyon in southwest Oregon, where I helped a friend put his cabin to bed for the winter. This is an annual event, and though the summer steelhead fishing tends to be well past its peak by mid-November, we spend a good part of the day on the river anyway, walking the trails, hunting for river teeth, casting a line, and generally soaking up the spectacular canyon action. Bald eagles soar overhead and otters frolic in the currents. There’s so much to see and do that invariably we wind up walking home in the dark, the “reptilian brain” tuned into every snapping twig (cougar!) and rustling leaf (bear!). Back at the cabin we warm ourselves beside an old woodstove. Meals are whumped up on a propane stove, light cast by kerosene lanterns. It’s a First Principles sort of deal.

This place is deep in my bones. I lived there for the better part of a year in my mid-20s and returned in 2004 for a second tour. Fifteen years ago I caught my first steelhead in one of the river’s hallowed holes and learned how to key out wild mushrooms found in the woods that stretch unbroken for miles around the cabin. It’s safe to say FOTL wouldn’t exist without my experiences in the Rogue.

Fishing for “half-pounders” is one of the local gigs. They’re immature steelhead that run up the Rogue for reasons scientists have yet to fully understand. Too young to spawn, they enter fresh water in the late summer and loiter all winter, eating just enough to stay alive, then drop back down to the salt to finish maturing before their actual spawning run the next year. It’s a puzzling phenomenon that occurs in only a handful of watersheds along the Oregon-California border, most famously in the Klamath and Rogue rivers. Fly-fishermen in particular admire the half-pounders, which generally tape out between 12 and 16 inches and lustily take a fly, providing good sport when the big fish aren’t ready to play.

I don’t eat a lot of half-pounders because I’d rather catch them as bigger adults of several pounds. But a trip to the Rogue wouldn’t be the same without a hatchery fish for breakfast one morning. Like the adults, their flesh is pink from eating shrimp and other saltwater crustaceans. The taste is more subtle than salmon—imagine fresh sautéed rainbow trout with a hint of the sea to it, an essence of shrimp or crab that expands the flavor without losing that fine, nutty troutness. It’s a noble taste that should be enjoyed with good friends.

In my next post I’ll be discussing a type of mushroom—common in the Rogue River Canyon—that might kill you if your identification isn’t up to snuff.

Yesterday’s Ramble

The amount of snow still in the mountains—even the foothill river valleys—is mind-boggling. Friends were skiing lift areas until recently. Mt. Baker just closed this week.

Call it denial: I was ready for a real low-elevation hike, not a commute among joggers and dog-walkers on one of those wide, well-groomed thorofares that criss-cross the state parks adjacent to the suburban fringe; I wanted wilderness. So yesterday I passed by the state lands and continued on toward national forest, enduring miles of mud-filled potholes to poke around one of the west side drainages.

The valley looked as though it had just stepped out of the shower after a rough night: wet, matted ferns, windfall, patches of snow in the shady spots. I had the place to myself. Despite the violence of winter, the biological imperatives of spring were all around. I found these delicate little fiddleheads that looked like they were in mid-conversation.

Trilliums in full bloom covered the forest floor. Western coltsfoot (not to be confused with the edible coltsfoot of the eastern U.S.) like this one to the left blossomed from the seeps.

The birds were stirring too. Winter wrens sang their bubbling songs, and the varied thrushes—usually hard to approach—offered glimpses of themselves as they filled the woods with their eerie, ventriloquil notes. The sun came out at some point and dappled the forest with a warm, magical glow.

An abundance of fiddleheads sprouted from clumps that lined the trail, and though not of the choicest varieties, I pocketed enough anyway for a couple meals, of which more later.