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.
…the tough make elk stew. On the theory that a little comfort food would go a long way toward soothing our souls, and with one last roast from the elk our friend Kate gave us last year sitting in the freezer, Weston and I went to work. We cut, floured and browned the elk, then tossed it into a big pot with a little water to slow cook to savory, tender awesomeness. After a couple hours, we added carrots, potatoes, onions, green beans, mushrooms–all chopped into generous bite-sized pieces by Weston–to the pot and let it simmer for another half hour. Simple, comforting, and mouth-wateringly good. (That’s the sous chef below, showing off his work.)
Kate’s in Montana now, chasing elk around once again. Here’s to her tipping over another one just as delicious as this one. We’re already looking forward to helping her eat it.
Even though fishing wasn’t exactly red hot on the Willapa, gradually, over the course of eight tides, we accumulated a pretty decent box of fish. And all of it had to be processed right away. In other words, I spent the better part of last week cutting, brining, smoking and packaging about sixty pounds of fish. First up was two full smoker loads of king salmon, brined with our usual 2/3 cup kosher salt and 1-1/2 cups dark brown sugar per nine cups of water, and plenty of alder smoke. The results, above.
For the silvers, I made “coho candy” with smaller strips of fish, more sugar in the brine, a brown-sugar glaze, some cracked black pepper, and apple-wood smoke. The idea here is convenient, easy-to-eat finger food for snacks or a little protein with breakfast.
Of course, there were also eggs. Big, prime, fall king eggs that burst in your mouth with fatty goodness. I screened out about a gallon of eggs and cured them with just a little soy sauce, rice wine and kosher salt. That’s the salmon eggs after screening and rinsing, just before seasoning. After a few days to cure in the fridge, the ikura (salmon caviar) went into a dozen small canning jars to be frozen for many great meals and snacks in the future. Over rice, on crackers, or simply by the spoonful, this stuff is unbelievable.
Finally, and with a sense of relief and satisfaction, Skyla and I made a kind of production line with the vac-sealer. This is what kids’ favorite school lunches look like just before going into the freezer, although I also admit that a sizeable portion has already disappeared. We’ve been eating smoked salmon at least once a day now for a week straight. I’m still not tired of it. Tired, for sure, but not tired of smoked salmon. In fact, I’m going to eat another chunk right now.
Processing season is upon us, and we’re in full juggling mode. The goal is to turn chrome-bright, fat-laden king salmon (above) into our favorite foods. I think it’s tossup for all of us between hot-smoked salmon and ikura salmon caviar. Of course, we also love it salted and fresh on the grill, and the leftovers in sandwiches. But for now, especially with these summer kings, which have less fat than the spring fish, we’re staying focused on smoking, salting and preserving.
This is the shop fridge holding a combination of pre- and post-brined salmon strips and chunks, along with two bins of brine. For our taste, we like a liquid brine made from 2/3 cup coarse Kosher salt, 1-1/2 cups dark brown sugar for every 9 cups of water. This year, in an effort to speed up our processing, I’m drying the brined salmon for 5 hours with a box fan blowing directly over the fish, then hot smoking at 205 degrees for about 7 hours. Results are delicious.
And here’s another batch of ikura, separated from the membrane using hardware cloth, and just starting to cure with 1/2 tsp Kosher salt, 1 tsp soy sauce and 1-1/2 tsp sake per 2 cups of eggs. Three days in the fridge to cure, then, if there’s any left, we put it in jars and freeze. But mostly it’s eaten up right away, on steamed rice, on crackers with cream cheese, or in Skyla’s case, by the spoonful. At the rate we’re mowing through the processed goods, we’re going to need more fish and more processing if we want any for winter. I think we’re up for it.
With this year’s short king salmon season in full swing, it’s been an all-hands-on-deck exercise in fishing, processing, brining and smoking salmon, vac sealing, curing ikura salmon caviar, fishing, smoking more salmon, fishing, etc, etc. Three smoker batches and two salmon-caviar-making sessions in, we are full steam ahead. We’ve been eating salmon every day for more than a week now, and nobody’s complaining. Oh, yeah, there’s also work, chores and summer sports camps in the mix as well. Did I mention fishing?
This is summer, when the longest days of the year fly by the fastest, and we try to make the most of every minute of daylight. And based on how much the kids love smoked salmon for school lunches, and how we ran out of it by February last year, it’s time to produce, process, package and preserve. And on that note, it’s time to go eat some of the smoked belly strips pictured above. I love summer.