Enough with the resolutions! It’s time to eat. This is the year to get outdoors and find some wild foods. Of course, with so many possibilities in our bounteous region, a would-be forager might feel overwhelmed. But it’s easy to come up with a game plan for 2017 by breaking down the foraging year into the four seasons: spring greens, summer berries, fall fungi and winter shellfish.
Let’s look more closely at each season.
You'll find crisp and tender fiddlehead ferns like these in the spring
Spring is the great awakening. The woods change their drab winter clothes for a vibrant new suit. This is the time to head for the foothills in search of the intense flavors and off-the-charts nutrition provided by wild greens. Just the way our backyard gardens are cranking out peas and spinach, nature’s garden right outside the city—on Cougar Mountain in Issaquah, for instance—is alive with green goodness: stinging nettles, fiddleheads and miner’s lettuce. Nettles in particular are an essential part of my spring foraging. I pick and freeze enough to last me the whole year. Nettle pesto, anyone?
Summer = huckleberry time!
As spring gives way to the heat of summer, look for the sweet, sun-splashed fruits of the season. My berry picking begins right after the solstice in sea-level woods, when the first red huckleberries and trailing blackberries start to ripen. But it’s the end of summer when my favorite dessert staple, the mountain huckleberry, is in its prime. Mark your calendar now and plan to make an alpine excursion in August or September. Every year for Labor Day weekend, our family gets into the high country of the Cascades or the Olympics on a three-night backpacking trip, which also happens to be a great time to stock up on huckleberries—as well as a chance to watch our ursine friends, preferably at a distance through a pair of binoculars. This past Labor Day, from our campsite on the Olympic High Divide, we watched three different bears picking their fair share of huckleberries while we did the same.
With the autumn rains comes a strange and wondrous crop, full of color and odd shapes: fall fungi. If this is the year you plan to learn about mushrooms, then start early by first learning about trees, because many of our most delicious wild mushrooms—from porcini to chanterelles to matsutake—have symbiotic relationships with specific types of trees. Learn how to distinguish a Douglas fir from a Sitka spruce and you’ll begin to unlock the secrets of finding the umami-filled mushrooms that grow alongside these iconic Northwest conifers. Next, if you really want to hunt fungi, join the Puget Sound Mycological Society in Seattle (or one of the state’s many such clubs near you) and go on a field trip. Nothing beats seeing a mushroom in its habitat and having an expert on hand to offer identification tips.
Look for razor clams in winter
And finally, as the landscape goes to bed for the year, it’s time to look to the water: Shellfish are at their best in winter. Razor clams, oysters, crabs and the rest are putting on fat for next summer’s spawning. (Check the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website at wdfw.wa.gov for regulations and other details.) Put some elbow grease into digging your limit of razor clams and you won’t be rushing to the scale after a hearty dinner of pasta alle vongole. As any experienced forager knows, the hunt is just as rewarding as the meal that follows—and it won’t jeopardize any of those more mundane resolutions you might have.
Razor Clam Chowder
2 cups chopped razor clams
4–5 strips of thick, quality bacon, diced
1 large onion, sliced into wide half moons
2–3 cups peeled and cubed potatoes
¼ cup white wine
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 quart chicken stock
1 pint heavy cream (or half and half)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste
» Sauté bacon in heavy pot, then remove with slotted spoon. Sauté onions 1 minute in bacon fat, add potatoes and cook 10–15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove onion-potato mixture for later use, and deglaze pot with a splash of white wine. Next, melt butter and mix in flour to make a roux. Slowly add stock over medium heat. Return onions and potatoes (and bacon, if desired) and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add thyme and seasonings. Slowly add cream and clams and cook over low heat. Serve “piping hot,” as my dad always says, with good bread.
Follow Langdon Cook’s further adventures at fat-of-the-land.blogspot.com