Category Archives: tools of the trade

Freezer Foraging

I’ve been a couch potato lately. When Mama Nature puts down 15 inches of rain on Snoqualmie Pass in a single shout, effectively melting three feet of base, and submerges a 20-mile stretch of I-5 south of Seattle, I heed the warning: Stay home! We’ve got some biblical shite going down in these parts and you don’t have to live in Carnation to see the writing on the wall, or the ring around the living room walls, as the case may be.

Which is all a way of saying I haven’t been foraging much lately. A trip to the coast for the latest razor clam opener seemed like a dicey proposition—just ask the truckers who have been stranded on dry islands of highway for a few days—and river fishing is certainly out of the question. Too bad the squid jigging has been so poor this year, because that would be an attractive option right now. Next week I hope to get a shot at some blackmouth.

No, the freezer is my go-to foraging ground right now. I think I can safely say it’s the best investment of zero dollars I’ve ever made. For the price of hauling it away, a colleague of mine gave me a stand-up freezer several years ago and I’ve kept it full of salmon, shad, crabs, shrimp, razor clams, mushrooms, nettles, berries, tubs of stock, and a bunch of other wild foods ever since. The real test will come if I get into hunting and start laying in hunks of meat.

It’s a joy to walk downstairs to the basement to find a wild food du jour. Lately mushrooms have been feeding the jones: porcini with rabbit, chanterelles for Christmas dinner, lobster duxelles for our holiday party. Last night I hit the chanties again, of which I’ve got poundage, so I could bring a treat to Jani and Kathy’s place for Pizza Night. I also brought over enough red wine to make Kathy give up the recipe behind the dough that makes her Napoli-style pizza so delicious…

Kathy’s Pizza

Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to reveal it here on the Interwebs. But: much more goes into a pizza party at Jani and Kathy’s that can be passed along for your own enjoyment and emulation. Rule #1 is to hand your guests a special drink the moment they walk through the door. Usually this means a whiskey sour, though during the coldest months it might also be a rum sour, as it was last night.

Next is the pizza making: It’s a family affair, all hands on deck. A big pot of red sauce is already on the stovetop, thanks to Jani, but many other tasks are up for grabs, making the final ‘za a team effort. The kitchen is stocked. Jani and Kathy own no fewer than three pizza stones and three wooden pallets. Various cheeses and toppings are scattered helter-skelter. The point is to roll up your sleeves and experiment.

Here is my contribution, with ample help from Kathy:

Wild Mushroom Pizza

1 lb butter
4 tbsp butter
2 tbsp fresh thyme
1/2 cup dry sherry
2 cups Gruyere cheese, shredded
1 cup smoked mozzarella, shredded
dough for one large pizza
olive oil
salt and pepper
garnish of fresh thyme sprigs and pink pepperberries (optional)

1. Saute chanterelles in butter for a few minutes over medium-high heat. Add sherry and thyme; season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook until liquid has evaporated, then blot dry and set aside.

2. Stretch and shape pizza dough into desired shape. Brush with olive oil, then top with cheese mixture. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake at 500 degrees until crust is lightly browned, about 6 minutes.

3. Remove pizza from oven and quickly top with mushrooms. Return to oven and bake until crust is golden, another 4 minutes or so.

4. Allow pizza to cool a couple minutes. Garnish with pepperberries and thyme.

The smoked mozzarella and chanterelles combine to make a very powerful woodsy flavor, which is accented by the thyme and pepperberries. This is not a frivolous pizza. I should also note that previously sauteed and frozen chanterelles will make it somewhat chewier than fresh chanties, though not in a way that is displeasing. Be prepared to wash it down with plenty of red wine.

Gifts for Foragers, #3

If you have a Santa Baby who checks off the priciest items on your list, you might consider a handheld GPS unit. Here at FOTL we’ve had our eye on the Garmin 60CSx for a while, but given the pear-shaped nature of the economy—and more specifically, Mrs. Claus’s 401(k)—we’re currying favor by leaving all big-ticket items off the list this year. That doesn’t mean your own Secret Santa won’t pony up close to $300 to keep you from getting lost in the woods.

By all accounts the new GPS units are far superior to those of just a few short years ago. They lock on satellites more easily, and track better under canopy cover. Safety notwithstanding, the real genius of the handheld GPS unit lies in its steel-trap memory. Unlike a foggy old forager, the computer chip remembers exactly where those epic mushroom patches and notellum fishing holes are located. Now if it could just find the missing 401(k)…

Huckleberry Hounds

Screw on your berry snout because the time is now to sniff out one of the great treats of late summer. By general consensus among the berry cognoscenti, the western huckleberry enjoys a position at the pinnacle of berry crops across the brakes of North America. East Coast blueberries, long since domesticated and hybridized into amusement park proportions for lowest common denominator taste buds, may be the sweetest of the Vacciniums, but the wild huckleberry, with its complex sparring of sucrose and tang, is the berry of record for true aficionados. And while FOTL can’t consider himself an aficionado yet (he’s only been picking huckleberries off and on for a mere two decades), he knows ’em when he sees ’em.

Last weekend we captained the Loaf down to one of the most storied berry patches in the land, the Indian Heaven Wilderness in the center of the volcanic triangle of Hood, Adams, and St. Helens. Indian Heaven is a seismic plateau of lavaflows and ancient, long-foundering cinder cones, a snowtrap in winter and a meltwater sponge through the summer—conditions that make it a Mosquito Heaven for sure, and a Huckleberry Heaven of tall-tale grandeur as well. For hundreds, probably thousands of years the Yakama and Klickitat tribes gathered here in summer to hunt, fish, pick berries, play games, and race horses. The Indian Racecourse is still around, as are the great berry fields, an accident of fire ecology that was later accentuated by purposeful fires set by the Indians themselves to choke out competing groundcover and keep the canopy open.

Among famous berry-picking locales (a few that come to mind include Glacier NP in Montana and the Blue Mountains in northeast Oregon), Indian Heaven has to be the most prolific I’ve ever seen, with some of the biggest and tastiest berries to be found anywhere. This year the berries are 2-3 weeks late in much of the Northwest due to lingering snowpack and a hard spring, so the season was just getting going. We came from the north, a long slog on forest roads 25, 90, 30, and 24, arriving finally at Sawtooth Mountain flanking the northern end of Indian Heaven and the beginning of Huckleberry Nirvana. Indians picked along the roadside, using improvised milk jugs with lanyards to free up both hands. A sign on the east side of the road laid out the terms of engagement (see image above). Just past the PCT we came upon this view of Mt. Adams to the northeast.

Washington and Oregon host a dozen species of huckleberries. Two of the most prominent (and the two we’re pretty sure we picked) are the thin-leaved huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) and the oval-leaved huckleberry (Vaccinium ovalfolium). V. membranaceum has very large, sweet purple berries; these are the berries sought after by most pickers because of their size and taste. The other, V. ovalfolium, looks more like a small bleuberry with a slightly glaucous waxy sheen; they’re smaller in size, though a good bush can be covered with scores of them, and the flavor is tarter, making V. ovalfolium a preferred huckleberry for jams and jellies. You can see the differences in size and color between the two species in the video and image below.

If you go a-huckleberrying, do yourself a favor and fashion a proper bucket that can hang around your neck. A word of warning though: I know of a guy, an experienced ex-forest service employee, who was picking Oregon grape berries with a similar leashed bucket. He was picking so fast he inadvertently scooped an entire bees’ nest into the bucket. As the mad bees started swarming over the berries he saw his error and tried to run away but the bucket naturally followed him. Throwing it did no good. Lots of screaming and running in circles ensued. Finally he had to concede to the reality of the leash and lift the lanyard over his head, effectively putting his face right in the bucket. Good thing it was early morning and the bees still couldn’t fly; he escaped without a sting.

If you’re in my neck of the woods, the Gifford Pinchot NF puts out an excellent brochure on huckleberry picking that answers many general questions about regulations, biology, history, and also includes a map (!) to some of the better patches along forest service roads.

Since our return with a few gallons of huckleberries, we’ve vacuum-sealed and frozen most of our catch, and used the rest either to make cobblers and pancakes or to eat simply, unadorned. I’ll try to get a pie recipe posted soon, but first I’ve gotta get me some lard!

Buttoned Up

You say you didn’t land any spring kings despite the fisheries biologists’ predictions of a banner year? Me neither. But spring Chinook are not the only kings of the season. The fungal kingdom has its own spring royalty—king boletes—and though the exact species name is up for grabs, we can all agree that what the Italians simply call porcini is out there on the East Slope of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada right now.

I love hunting for spring kings and I love eating them. In Washington these mushrooms seem to be most prevalent around true firs, although experience shows that certain hardwoods can be important too. They start popping as early as April in California and Oregon, but here in Washington I don’t bother checking my patches until June, usually as the morel harvest is waning. Queen’s cup lilies are a good indicator for timing.

Professional foragers grade their mushrooms for market. No. 3’s are the big mature kings that can be spotted even from a speeding car. Also called “flags,” they’re often useful beacons for finding the more desirable no. 2’s and no. 1’s. The former have just emerged from the duff and are still firm, with convex caps and white pores underneath the cap; the latter are harder to see because they’re still in the “button” phase underground, with caps that have just started to open. A trained eye can see the mounded duff that buttons push up, known as “mushrumps” to hungry mycophagists. Hunting for no. 1 buttons is good sport.

Here’s a video that shows the habitat and the progression of looking for spring kings, from flag to button:

While I usually dry my excess boletes for later use in soups and stews, apparently you can freeze the buttons, so this year I’ve vacuum-sealed and frozen about 10 pounds of porcini buttons. I’ll post the results after thawing and cooking the first batch later this summer when the flush is over.

In the meantime, I’ll be eating fresh porcini with morning eggs, sauteed for lunch sandwiches, and prepared in all manner of ways for dinner, from pasta sauces to grilled to stewed. Their meatiness and nutty-woodsy flavor make porcini one of the great treats in all of fungaldom.

Warts and All

We’re loaded for bear here at FOTL. Just picked up an arsenal of lures, swivels, weights, and the incomparable Smelly Jelly. The last four days have seen more than a thousand Columbia River spring chinook counted over Bonneville Dam each day, with more than 2,000 on two of those days. The time is now.

Down at the tackle shop the boys are talking up the Mag Wart, pictured above. Aren’t those tempting little buggers? Personally, the hot red color has me fired up. I can just see my fly-fishing bretheren rolling their eyes. Look how far he’s fallen. Thee Originoo Trouthole shakes his head sadly. What can I say? Fishin’ is fishin’. I’ll save the flyrod for shad. The chinook get the wart.

I’ve never fished for springers before, so this is terra incognita—or aqua incognita, as the case may be. My plan is to drive down next week and camp somewhere in the Gorge, then spend a day at the mouth of the Little White Salmon River—a place known, rather unfortunately, as Drano Lake—and see if I can hook into one of these upriver brights from the bank. It’s mostly a boat show, so my expectations are not high, but I figure I’ll learn a ton on this first exploratory mission.

Salmon aficionados consider Columbia River spring chinook to be quite possibly the tastiest salmon of them all. What makes spring chinook so special is their high fat content, fat translating into flavor. As the name implies, springers return to their natal rivers earlier than summer and fall chinook, which means they must survive the rigors of a freshwater environment for a longer stretch until the fall spawn begins. Since they won’t be eating during that time, their bodies are equipped to handle the holdover with extra fat reserves.

If they’re not eating, you might reasonably ask, how do you get them to strike a lure? Short answer: piss ’em off. The Mag Warts are outfitted with rattles to irritate the salmon, and they thrash around like an injured baitfish. A honking big buck of a springer just can’t help himself; he must take a nip out of the Wart as it swims past his nose. In theory, at least.

This year’s run of upper Columbia River springers, forecasted at 269,300 fish, is the third largest since 1977. This causes no end of confusion among those who don’t closely follow the plight of salmon and salmon fisheries. Wasn’t most of the West Coast just closed to salmon fishing? they ask. Yes, but not for the current springer run. The summer and fall runs, especially those in California, are looking dismal, hence the emergency closure. The springers are in better shape this year, and at FOTL we hope to tie into one and offer up a recipe or two soon.


If you had told me a decade ago that looking at a bunch of jars gave you heart palpitations…well, I’d have said get a life. Now here I am. Staring at a bunch of jars with heart palpitations. You see, I’m imagining these jars filled with dried morels, boletes, nettles, and countless other wild goodies. I’ve been looking all over town for jars like these. Finally found a place called The Container Store over in Bellevue. The jars are Italian (always a good sign when it comes to food). They have metal clamps and rubber gaskets. They’re hermetically sealed. These jars will hopefully put an end to Mothfest. And they look pretty good lined up on the countertop.

Out, Damned Moth!

Disaster has struck: those pesky kitchen cupboard moths—you know, the little brown ones always flying out of cereal boxes—busted into my double-zipped gallon bag of dried morels picked at last year’s Tripod burn. They made a mess of things. Silk everywhere. Larvae inching around. Morels in tatters. I salvaged what I could, but several meal’s worth had to be chucked. Luckily I have more bags, like the one pictured above, but still.

I’ve made some inquiries and will be purchasing large glass mason jars with rubber gaskets and clamps, asap—a purchase I’ve been meaning to make for years and will finally get around to now that it’s too late, kinda like legislation to prevent mortgage foreclosure.

Food storage is of paramount importance to the forager. I’ve got a standup freezer that I picked up for zero dollars (the guy just wanted it out of his garage). Right now it’s filled with smoked salmon and shad, pink salmon fillets, shad fillets, shad roe, razor clams, squid, fish stock, chanterelle mushrooms, hedgehog mushrooms, and a bunch of other things. It was perfect for the quarter organic cow I bought from Skagit River Ranch a couple years ago. If I was a hunter, with birds, deer, and elk to store, I’d need another freezer, but this one will do for now even though it’s a bit dinged up and needs to be defrosted every few months.

A vacuum-sealer like the FoodSaver is another key part of the equation. Air, with its free-floating microbes waiting to feast on whatever they can get their grubby claws into, is the enemy. Fish fillets can last for months if vacuum-sealed (although they’re best when used within three months) while mushrooms…let’s just say I’m still working through chanties with ’06 on the label.

I get a nice warm feeling when the wild food processing is just about complete and it’s time to break out the vacuum-sealer. Labeling the bags with a laundry pen (species, date, harvest location) brings me back to the pleasure of the foraging itself. Dividing up the food into bags makes me think ahead to all the cooking I’ll do. Then, watching the air get sucked out of the bags as the plastic tightens and forms around my catch is a strangely satisfying exclamation on the day. It’s usually late at night by now: time to arrange the food parcels in the freezer and go to bed, knowing an abundance of food gathered and caught with my own hands awaits.

* * *

Did I write that last paragraph? That was a few hours ago. In retrospect even I have to wonder what sort of fungi I’m putting up.

Map Quest

My maps arrived. Now, as my friend Caryn would say, I can get orientated.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources, not my most favorite state agency, for its history of over-zealous resource extraction and the mindless yoking of one resource (public schools) to another (timber), nevertheless offers a screaming deal on maps to several state forests. The maps are $6 each, or $20 for a set of six (including tax).

Though mostly cut over during the timber go-go years, the state forests are regenerating (visit Tiger Mountain just outside Seattle for an example of what a logged forest can do if left alone for a few decades) and they have ample trail systems. More to the point, they’re mostly low elevation (compared to wilderness areas) and offer excellent foraging for wild fungi, greens, and berries. They can also be confusing places to visit because of the crazy-quilt patterns of old roads, railways, and trails, so a good map is indispensable if you plan to explore off the beaten path. More immediately, I’m hoping these maps will give me some ideas about where to look for truffles once this cold spell moves through.

Honey, Get the Gun

The Ace Hardware in Ocean Shores, WA, had guns galore. You might say it was going great guns. I picked out a nice gray one, gun-metal gray, in fact, and then drove to the Porthole Pub for a bacon cheeseburger. An hour later the rain stopped and a few rays of sun snuck through the clouds—not that the weather would stop anyone today. By 2 p.m. the beach was already crowded. We drove out onto the hardpan sand like everyone else. Low tide was 3:58 p.m. I put my boots on, got the gun out, and wandered down among the people. The hooting and hollering had already begun. I took aim and fired.

Open season on razor clams!

Like Noodling for flatheads in the Delta, running a sap line in New England, or dropping a baited hook through a hole in the ice in the Great White North, digging razor clams is a peculiar and time-honored expression of regional identity. Golden-hued and shaped like a straight-edged razor, the Pacific razor clam (Siliqua patula, for “open pod”) makes its home along the sandy, storm-tossed beaches of the Northwest, from Pismo, California, to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, where they earn a living filtering plankton, particularly a species of diatom known as Attheya armatus.

Both humans and grizzly bears have a powerful taste for razor clams. Which brings us back to the clam gun. An ingenious device. Nothing more than a humble length of PVC or metal tube with a handle attached. Lacking a grizzly’s sharp claws and hump of back muscle, the human clam digger must strike a pose with his gun like a hard hat-wearing jackhammerer, then work his tube several inches down into the wet sand before closing a vent on the handle. With suction he can now pull up a core of sand—and, if he’s skilled, a razor clam secreted within.

Overkill, you say? Razor clams are fast. Go ahead and laugh. Reports vary, but one researcher clocked a razor clam burying itself at a rate of an inch per second. At that pace, I refuse to entertain snide remarks about fair chase. These tubes are by far the weapons of choice for extracting the clams. Wherever you go you hear clammers referring to their “guns,” but in truth the term was originally coined to describe a small, angled shovel invented in the 1940s and used for the same purpose, and there are old-school clammers who will eagerly correct you if you call your tube a gun. But everyone does, and so did I.

A limit of razor clams (15 per day in Washington state) may not seem like a lot on paper, but these clams can be monstrous, and one with a six-inch shell surely has more meat on it than a small quail. (The clams to the right, both shucked and one cleaned, are just average sized.)

For both fish and clam chowders I hew closely to the classic New England recipe outlined by Mark Bittman in How to Cook Everything, which happens to be the same recipe used by my grandmother Mimi on the Cape, although unlike both Bittman and Mimi, I prefer using a generous roux of melted butter and flour to thicken the chowder. However, I’ll never go back to my earliest love of the whipped and creamy style so thick you can spread it on toast points, not since working in my youth at a Martha’s Vineyard restaurant famous for its chowder. Between us, that miraculous, float-a-cherry-on-top creaminess didn’t come from any particular technique or wizardry in the kitchen; it came from giant cans labeled “Chowder Base.”