Matsutake New Year

Perhaps an acquired taste, but for me, the matsutake–or pine mushroom–rice is a nostalgic dish I crave. Some describe the distinctive scent of raw a matsutake as “cinnamon red hots through a dirty sweatsock,” which isn’t far from the truth, but once cooked the aroma is piney and fresh, not unlike a Christmas tree. That’s three generations (my mom, Skyla and me) with a gorgeous matsutake to go with traditional Japanese New Year’s feast.

My grandmother made matsutake rice, my Mom makes it, and now I do too. Soon, I’m pretty sure my kids will make it. It’s simple, delicious, and a special treat. I use water from rehydrating shiitake mushrooms for a hit of umami, Japanese short-grain rice, a bit of rice vinegar, salt and sugar, and fresh-chopped matsutake. And I always try to make more than we’ll eat in one meal, because it’s even better the next day as onigiri rice balls.

This year, as the the rice cooked, the aroma reminded me of the last time I made it for my late friend Bruce up in BC. We were fishing and staying in The Shack up on the Kispiox. Bruce loved matsutake rice. A fishing buddy came by with a single big matsutake and we talked all day about how good the rice would taste. When I started cooking, I discovered the mushroom was riddled with maggots. Bruce and our friend Yvon said “make it anyway,” so I did, and we ended up eating the whole batch that night. Miss that guy a ton. But it seemed a fitting way to end the year we lost him, and kick off 2018 on a good note. Happy New Year, everyone. I think it’s going to be a good one.

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Tuesdays At Smarty’s

In what has become a treasured tradition, we gather at Smarty’s for dinner every Tuesday night. It’s usually kind of a boy’s meal, but girlfriends, wives and moms often join. Kids and dogs are welcome, too. People pitch in and bring whatever they’ve caught, trapped, shot, foraged or found, but the featured entree is always something wild–ducks, geese, pheasant, quail, spot prawns, albacore, salmon, crab, deer, elk–and beautifully prepared by Smarty. Helene often makes her famous salad with fresh lemon, garlic and pine nuts. I usually bring brown-and-wild rice. Last night, it was fat, juicy Eastern Washington mallards, roasted hot so the skin crisped and the interior stayed blood rare, served with a sauce made from butter, sherry, worcestershire, current jelly and a few other top-secret ingredients. Pete brought fresh winter oysters and pan-fried them to a crisp, golden brown for our appetizer. It was, as usual, a meal you couldn’t buy at any price or beat at any restaurant.

A rotating cast of characters shows up, but it’s usually some combination of Smarty, me, Neal, Pete, John, Morgan, Helene, Sam, and whoever else is in town. A lot of us try to schedule around Tuesdays, and when I’m away, there’s always a pang of missing out, no matter how cool a trip I’m on, or how much fun I’m having somewhere else. In spite of the mind-blowing food, I think it’s really the company and the cadence of a regular check-in among friends, that makes these dinners so special. Wednesday mornings, I’m already looking forward to the next Tuesday. Huge thanks to Smarty for making it happen, keeping it going, and bringing us all together.


Family Fun

My brother and his family came out from Brooklyn, and my mom came up from California for some good Pacific Northwest fun. We spent time on the water for a little fishing–that’s my niece, Nora and me multi-tasking with boat-driving selfie–and mostly just enjoyed our time together. The cousins, Skyla, Weston, Nora and May, live in such different worlds, and see each other only a few times a year, but they love each other so much it lifts my spirits just to watch them together.  I am so thankful for our family, and for the NY and Cali members to make the effort to be here.

We went berry picking, and the kids teamed up with their grandma to learn the secrets of making The Greatest Pie In The World.

Just the smell of the pie cooking took me back to my childhood, and when it came out of the oven, we could hardly wait for it to cool. This is the pie I dream about–crisp, flaky, tender, savory crust and sweet, slightly tart blackberry filling. The very taste of August in the Northwest. Now…if the kids just learned enough to make it again themselves, I think we can squeeze in a few more before the weather turns. If only the whole family could be here to enjoy it!


Prawnapalooza!

The search for the elusive, wily, Puget Sound spot prawn launched (and concluded) Saturday. With just a four-hour season this year, there would be no messing around.

Three kids–Weston, Skyla, and Skyla’s buddy, Ava…

Five adults (that’s Neal putting all his crossfit training to good use)…

Two boats (Smarty, Helene, John and the girls on the hunt)…

One quick selfie in the brief moments before Weston returned to his customary job, napping…

…and 640 spot prawns. Not to mention countless great meals ahead.

Back at the dock, Weston woke up just in time to haul gear. “Going shrimping,” he said, rubbing his eyes and yawing, “is really relaxing.”


Kispiox Dinner

Photo by Rick Koe

Photo by Rick Koe

Jed showed up to fish one morning and before we hit the road, he handed me a single, perfect matsutake mushroom. I stashed it in my pocket, and from time to time throughout the day, I’d catch whiffs of the unique scent–a mix of pine trees, cinnamon and something earthy and mushroom-y. Someone once described matsutakes as smelling like red hots in a dirty sweat sock, but I don’t get the sweat sock part. They just smell delicious to me. More than once, my mouth watered at the thought of it.

Fast forward to dinner prep. Bruce and Aaron had a stack of enormous moose steaks; Calvin and April ran out to the truck, dug through a cooler, and produced a deer backstrap; Yvon broke out a magnum of Chateau Musar Bruce had given him; Rick was outside burning logs into perfect barbecue coals. I washed some rice, added the hydrating water from dried shiitake mushrooms, a bit of rice vinegar, a pinch of salt. Then, with great anticipation, I cut into that gorgeous matsutake. Inside, something moved. It was alive with small, white maggots. I recoiled. What to do? Figured I should give the crew the option. I showed them the wriggling mushroom slices and said we can either add it to the rice as planned, or toss it out and just go with plain rice. Someone said, “The rice is going to boil, right?” Another said, “Hate to waste a good matsutake.” There was a moment of silence, then the crew voted “Go for it” without objection.

It was delicious. And part of one of the most memorable meals I’ve had in a long time. Great food, great friends, great spirits. And a few maggots just to keep things on the adventurous side.