Yesterday, incredibly, the sun shone nearly all day, and the earth dried out enough for me to pull the grass from around our hop plant. I found some hop shoots as tall as a foot and many others barely out of the ground. I wanted to leave only a few sturdy bines to grow, so I cut out the others. The smallest I set aside for dinner. See the short, plump, pale sprouts in the lower right of the picture? Those are hop shoots of the tenderest, tastiest sort, blanched by the cover of grass I’d removed.
I followed the advice of Patience Gray, whose Honey from a Weed is one of my favorite books. In it she describes “SALAD OF HOP SHOOTS. These shoots, picked about 7.5 cm (3”) long, blanched for a few moments in boiling water, then dressed with oil and vinegar, are delicious; poor man’s asparagus. Picking time is April. The shoots can also be used in a frittata.”
If you’ve ever licked a hop flower, you know that hops are among the world’s most bitter foods. But the new shoots have no bitterness at all, even eaten raw. Their flavor is mild and earthy. And although the older bines, like the stalks of hop’s cousin Cannabis, are tough enough to make into rope, the new sprouts are tender—again, even eaten raw.
Robert and I decided against adding the shoots to a tossed salad, a risotto, or a frittata. We wanted to taste them on their own. He dropped them into a little pot of boiling water for about twenty seconds and then dressed them with a few drops each of red wine vinegar and roasted hazelnut oil.
Our little harvest of hop shoots amounted to only an appetizer, but we’ll probably have another picking or two before new sprouts stop emerging. Maybe this modest spring treat will ease our wait for the heaps of rich man’s asparagus to come.
Thanks to Jane Collins, who writes the blog Preserving the Harvest, I’ve just won the Liebster Blog Award, which is given by one blogger to another for excellent, beautiful, humorous, or sparkling work.
Although the origins of this award are obscure, its name comes from a German word for “dearest” or “favorite,” and it must be awarded according to certain rules: (1) On your blog you must thank the person who presented you the award and (2) link that that person’s blog; (3) you must paste the Liebster logo onto your blog; (4) you must award the Liebster to three to five other bloggers whose work you admire and who have fewer that 200 followers, and (5) you must tell those bloggers they have won by commenting on their blogs.
This is a humbling experience for me, because I seldom read other people’s blogs, even the ones on my blog roll. I discovered most of the blogs listed there, in fact, only because their writers discovered me first. I simply hate to spend more time reading from a computer screen than I have to.
So in shame and gratitude I’ve spent the past day and a half reading other people’s blogs, searching for a few deserving of the Liebster Blog Award. The search was especially difficult mainly because I added my own criteria for the winners: (1) Each writer must write, and write well, not just string together pretty photos with captions; (2) the person must write about food from the point of view of a producer—gardener, farmer, hunter, or gatherer—as well as a cook and a consumer; and (3) the site must not be plastered with advertising.
I’m not always sure how to determine how many followers a blogger has, but I ruled out two outstanding blogs simply because they seemed too popular. I’ll mention them anyway here. First, Erica at Northwest Edible Life was easy to find, because she commented on my post on BPA and jar lids. A former chef turned gardener in a Seattle suburb, she blogs about gardening, cooking, and food preservation. Second, Kevin Kossowan of Alberta, Canada, blogs about hunting, foraging, smoking meat, and making cider and wine and other preserved foods. Both of these blogs are well written, beautifully illustrated, and full of practical information. I’m adding them to my blog roll.
The Liebster Blog Award, however, goes to four others:
Sylvie Rowand, a native of France, gardens, cooks, preserves, and does some teaching and catering besides in Rappahannock County Virginia. Her lovely blog is called Rappahannock Cook and Kitchen Gardener.
Although Amazon identifies me as the author of this book, I’m really just the editor. The Canning and Preserving Handbook is adapted from the latest edition of the USDA’s classic Complete Guide to Home Canning. My job was to edit the text for clarity and consistency, so that the recipes and other instructions would be easier to read and follow.
The book opens with basic instructions, handsomely illustrated in watercolor, for water-bath and pressure canning. The remaining chapters comprise recipes for canned fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes in various forms, and chutneys, pie fillings, jams, jellies, ketchup, hot sauce, salsas, fermented pickles, vinegar pickles, and relishes. These are the basic recipes from which cookbook writers like me derive processing times for our own canned creations. All that the publisher and I left out are poultry, red meats, seafood, and a home economist’s bizarre invention called Zucchini-Pineapple.
For only $9.95 from Amazon, The Canning and Preserving Handbook comes with a comb binding, hard cover, and a lot of lovely full-page photos. I recommend this book for anyone who would like to keep at hand the USDA’s home-canning recipes, recommendations, and rules, all written in plain, unbureaucratic English. This sturdy, attractive little book would also make a fine gift for a beginning canner.
UPDATE 2022:The Canning and Preserving Handbook is now out of print, but used copies are available online.
“There is a saving streak of the primitive in all of us,” wrote Euell Gibbons, who introduced the art of foraging to the citified masses in the 1960s and 1970s. Hunting was as popular a sport then as now, but foraging was easier and cheaper and ought to be practiced more, Gibbons believed. You didn’t have to go to the mountains or virgin forest to gather wild foods; you could just walk out your door and take a stroll. Fence rows, stream sides, and even vacant lots could provide the raw material for tasty, nutritious, and unusual table fare. In books and magazine articles, Gibbons told how to identify and harvest dozens, perhaps hundreds, of wild species, and how best to cook them up.
The Pacific Northwest now has its own modern Euell Gibbons in Langdon Cook, author of Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager (Skipstone). Although Cook grew up on factory food in suburban Connecticut, he certainly has a streak of the primitive. Cook first came to the Northwest to sailboard on the Columbia River. He returned a few years later to study creative writing and then took an editorial job with Amazon, but he couldn’t stay tethered to a desk for long. Cook likes to write, and he writes well, but he most likes outdoor adventure.
In and near Seattle, where he lives, Cook gathers weeds that Gibbons also loved–watercress, fiddleheads, stinging nettle, and dandelions. He “jigs” for squid off a Seattle pier, along with Nicaraguans, Cambodians, and Ukrainians (a jig is “like a miniature cigar” with a circle of hooks at the end, meant to entangle rather than impale a squid). He casts for silver salmon from a Seattle beach, day after day until he lands one.
Cook forages farther afield, too: He drives hundreds of miles to a fire-blackened forest to gather morels, avoiding crowds of recreational mushroom hunters and dodging potentially dangerous pros. He camps on the Washington coast in winter and wanders the beach at night with hundreds of strangers, all hoping to nab a few precious razor clams with their PVC suction guns. He keeps an eye out for bears while picking huckleberries in the Blue Mountains and eastern Cascades. He catches steelhead trout on the Rogue River (mostly hatchery grown, but wild enough after months or years in the Pacific), and, early on a June morning, he gets in line at Bonneville Dam to await the starting gun for shad season.
The more daring the foraging adventure, the more fun Cook seems to have. Instead of catching crabs by dropping pots from a boat, he likes to dive into the Puget Sound, “chase them down like a seal, pin them against the bottom,” and then try to grab the crabs’ back legs without getting his hand sliced by the pincers. With his friend Dave, he deigns to use a boat to catch spot shrimp, but it’s a borrowed canoe on a windy day in the treacherous fjord known as Hood Canal, and the men must pull up hundreds of feet of rope by hand to collect their pots. Most frighteningly, Cook free-dives as deep as thirty feet in the cold water of the Sound to spear enormous lingcod, “long and snakelike, with a large mouth of teeth.”
In his pensive moments Cook writes lovely prose about nature. You can learn a lot from him about where to find and how to harvest fifteen or so edible wild species–and how to prepare them for supper, too. Having worked to live up to his name, Cook closes each chapter with a good basic recipe. But Fat of the Land is more memoir than nature guide or cookbook (because the publisher perceived the book this way, apparently, the book lacks an index). Above all, Fat of the Land is a collection of stories of Cook’s adventures in the wild with beer-drinking buddies who bear names like Trouthole and Warpo. Foraging, to Cook, is a manly sport.
Foraging Langdon Cook–style is a sport that gets ever more difficult and expensive as our swelling human population and our pollutants limit safety, seasons, and harvest allowances. Cook doesn’t gloss over the ecological questions; he is conservation-minded. But he clearly enjoys the challenge of getting his tastes of the dwindling fat of our land.
Less intrepid readers, like me, may turn from Cook back to Euell Gibbons, who caught fish and hunted game but mostly gathered weeds—weeds like mustard and winter cress and chicory, wild cherries and elderberries and crabapples. These neglected plants still line our roadsides and decorate our vacant lots. We can pick their foliage and fruits and enjoy them, thank goodness, without fearing that we may never taste such things again.
UPDATE 2022: Langston Cook has since published two more books, The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America and Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table.