by Jerry Anne Di Vecchio | Photo © Roger Ward
Jerry Anne Di Vecchio, long time West Coast editor, writer, and author, spent 42 years with Sunset Magazine and headed the Food and Wine section for over two decades. She has written and edited numerous cookbooks, including the charmingly illustrated children’s book, You’ve Got Recipes. The Northwest has provided her with many a culinary adventure.
To be sure, the setting is magnificent.
Imagine. A broad meadow with a backdrop of tall conifers that gradually slopes down to a long smooth stretch of beach at the edge of the great sound. The newcomers are encamped. Their newly built log cabins and barns, to house the domesticated creatures they’ve vigilantly tended through the long voyage, are near the trees. Mountains loom at the edge of the sky.
An established village, with its great long houses and carved totems, can be seen in the distance.
Bearing gifts of food, locals and immigrants come together to celebrate.
On the beach, several fires are burning. One fire is for comfort, with logs surrounding where folk can sit and visit. A flat-topped small log is almost in the flames. Alongside is a basket of freshly gathered oysters and clams. A few at a time, the shellfish are settled in the gentle niches of the log, close to the flames. In minutes, the heat pops shells open. A gourd holds a tangy sauce–vinegar, easily evolved from wild apples or berries, and bits of dried onion-fragrant ramps with the peppery bite of peppergrass or bittercress. Carefully, the hot shells are opened, a bit of the sauce is added, and the warm shellfish with juice and sauce are slurped down.
This succulent, briny overture begins a banquet of the incredible richness of seasonal blessings—a blending of the earth’s gifts nurtured by the original people and the staples that have helped the newcomers survive en route and settle into this New World.
What else might be on the menu? Salmon, of course. From the skilled hands of the local cooks, brined golden orange fillets cook on fragrant soaked cedar planks. Gleaming orange gold salmon roe, salted to preserve, is mounded onto the steaming fish.
Alongside the fish is Dungeness crab that requires no frills. For a delicate dish that makes contemporary chefs shout “locavore,” it’s boiled in sea water, plucked from the shell, and mingled with crisp bits of spidery, sea-fresh, slightly salty ogo seaweed, and the zip of wild ginger.
Tender wild greens, like miner’s lettuce, dandelion leaves, dock, lamb’s quarter thrive in the spring and early summer to savor until they grow tough or disappear. Nonetheless, there is marvelous potential for salad at hand on this day.
The settlers’ garden is a novelty to the hunter-gatherers of the coast. In small plots, a host of vegetables, including tender leaves that linger through the summer into the fall—lettuces, cabbage, kales—still flourish. In the salad, greens are united with native filberts, so like the European hazelnuts. The nuts get a crunchy glaze with sugar. The locals embrace this new taste! Pure sweet. The novelty of sugar fascinates. The newcomers, to further show what they can offer, add cheese from their goats, and pears—from carefully transported tree cuttings. More roasted hazelnut (aka filberts), ground and pressed, provide a delicate oil to dress the salad.
Game abounds. Elk is on the menu; its mild, lean flavor, comparable to beef, has much appeal for all.
But the aboriginal hunter has many other options: venison, goose, duck, grouse, quail, rabbit and more. Fats, for cooking and preserving, come from fish and animals, as do bones and trimmings to make good broths.
On this day, chunks of elk loin are seared over the coals, then finished off with a European flair—a serious sauce of local juniper berries and mustard seed blended with newly introduced cows’ butter, cream and a splash of restorative gin.
More cream and butter join wapato au gratin. This highly prized water-grown tuber (duck potato, tule potato) of the arrowhead plant is a staple, with mellow flavor and texture somewhat like waxy new potatoes. Seasoned with dried mushrooms, ramps or garden onions, they are cooked newcomer fashion, gently baking under a crusty top of buttery bread crumbs.
Just gathered cranberries, stewed with more of that sugar and sweeter dried raspberries, suit all present and enhance the meat course readily.
To the locals, the real novelty of the meal is it’s climax: a steamed pudding laden with preserved summer blueberries and more roasted hazelnuts donated by the land hosts. A sweet hard sauce melts onto the warm slabs. Brandy emboldens the taste. Steaming is an old-fashioned fuel-efficient and still effective way to cook.
Cultivated crops, animal husbandry (with dairy products—milk, cream, butter, cheese—and eggs), sugar and distilled spirits establish a foothold in the diet and the lifestyle of the region.
In the Pacific Northwest, where cooking was already a fine art before the Europeans arrived, there was a huge array of plants, creatures, techniques and more that made creative cuisine possible.
Now, much is no longer so easily accessible, much is forgotten. But an amazing wealth of foods and knowledge have survived to be replicated, harvested or cultivated, ever maintaining and expanding upon an inherited, sophisticated custom of dining well.
Pop Open Clams and Oysters with Sour Sauce
Indigenous: every ingredient
½ cup cider vinegar
2 Tbsp minced green onions
½ tsp fresh ground black pepper
16-24 live Pacific oysters
(5-6 inches long)
4-5 dozen live Manila clams
For Sour Sauce: In a small bowl mix together vinegar, green onions, and pepper. Sauce can stand, covered, at room temperature up to 4 hours.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
For the shellfish: Check shellfish for freshness. If gaping shells slowly close (and resist being opened) when tapped, the shellfish are alive. If they don’t close, discard. When cooked, if they don’t open, discard.
Scrub shells well under cool running water. Arrange shellfish in a single layer in rimmed pans. Put oysters, roundest side down, in one rimmed pan, clams in another—they cook at different rates. Start oysters 10 minutes before clams.
Bake in a 400°F oven. Clams will pop open in about 15 minutes. Oysters begin to gape after 20 to 25 minutes, and usually need more help to open. Remove cooked shellfish from oven.
Protect hands with heat resistant gloves; insert short-bladed oyster knife at shell hinge and twist to pop, then cut adductor muscle free. Lift off top shell and discard.
To serve: Quickly arrange hot shells with shellfish on individual plates or a tray, saving as much juice in shells as you can (save juice in pans for soup or great bloody marys). Spoon sour sauce over shellfish to taste.
Cedar-baked Brined Salmon with Fresh Salmon Caviar, Dungeness Crab with Fresh Ogo and Wild Ginger
Indigenous: salmon, salmon roe, the brine, cedar, crab, ogo seaweed, ginger
Imports: a bit of butter
1 King salmon thick-end fillet with skin (2½ – 3 lbs.)
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 Tbsp salt
2 Tbsp melted butter
Cedar (or alder) plank for grilling, large enough to hold fish
¾ cup fresh ogo seaweed
1 – 1½ cups fresh salmon caviar (ikura)
2 cups shelled Dungeness crab, in large pieces
1 Tbsp minced fresh ginger
1 Tbsp cider vinegar
Rinse salmon, pat dry, and coat with mixture of salt and sugar; cover and chill for 1 to 3 hours.
As salmon brines, rinse cedar plank, then immerse in cool water (hold down with a weight as wood floats) for at least 30 minutes.
Rinse ogo seawood well with cool water, drain, cover and chill.
Put salmon caviar in a fine mesh strainer; rinse gently under cool running water; drain well; pour into a bowl, cover and chill.
Preheat oven to 375°F.
Rinse salmon with cool water; pat dry. Set cedar plank in a rimmed pan (10×15” or 12×17”) and add about 1/4 inch water. Center salmon fillet on plank. With a sharp knife, cut fillet through flesh down to, but not through skin, into 8 equal portions. Brush salmon with melted butter.
Bake salmon at 375°F until flesh is moist looking but flakes when prodded in thickest part, 15 to 20 minutes.
To serve slide a narrow spatula between skin and fish and lift fish off plank onto plates. Mound caviar onto salmon. Put equal portions crab on each plate. Toss ogo with ginger and vinegar and scatter over crab.
Glazed Hazelnuts, Goat Cheese and Pears with Tender Greens
Indigenous: hazelnuts, vinegar, hazelnut oil
Imports: sugar, butter, pear, garden greens, fresh goat cheese
3 tsp butter
1 cup roasted hazelnuts
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
4 Tbsp cider vinegar
3 Tbsp roasted hazelnut oil
2 Tbsp salad oil (such as canola, peanut, olive)
¼ tsp salt
1 ripe pear, cored and cut into matchstick slivers
8 to 10 cups rinsed, well-drained tender young salad leaves (a combination of greens—lettuces, kale, mustard greens or more)
4 oz. fresh chevre, crumbled
For the glazed hazelnuts: Use 1 teaspoon butter to coat about an 8 inch square on a sheet of foil. Lay foil flat on the counter. Put hazelnuts in a 10- to 12-inch frying pan. Add sugar, remaining 2 teaspoons butter and 2 tablespoon vinegar. Stir on high heat until sugar melts, liquid evaporates, and glaze in pan turns brown and sticks onto nuts, about 3 minutes. At once, pour nuts onto buttered foil. Quickly, with spoon, push nuts apart; as soon as cool, wrap airtight. (If making ahead, store up to 2 days). To use, you may need to break nuts apart.
In a large salad bowl, combine remaining 2 tablespoons cider vinegar, hazelnut oil, salad oil and salt. Mix. Add pear slivers and toss gently; lift pear slivers out and into another small bowl, draining dressing back into large bowl. Add salad greens to large bowl and mix. Gently mix in crumbled cheese; spoon salad onto plates and top with glazed nuts and pears.
Elk Steak with Juniper Sauce
Indigenous: elk, bone broth, juniper berries, mustard seed, chives (various wild onion-like equivalents)
Imports: cream, gin, butter
1¼ cups beef or chicken broth
1 cup whipping cream
½ cup gin
6 dried juniper berries, slightly crushed
1½ Tbsp mustard seed
1½ – 2 lbs. Elk tenderloin or backstrap medallions, about ½ inch thick
Salt and pepper
2 Tbsp butter
½ cup chopped chives
In a 12-14 inch frying pan, combine 1 cup beef broth, cream, gin, juniper berries and mustard seed. Boil on high heat, stirring often (mixture foams up), until large shining bubbles form and sauce is reduced to 3/4 cup, about 10 minutes. Scrape sauce into a small bowl and set aside (sauce can stand at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours; or cover and chill up until the next day).
Rinse frying pan and wipe dry. Wipe elk surfaces with a damp paper towel, then sprinkle meat with salt and pepper. Put frying pan on high heat, when hot add butter and swirl until melted. Add meat and brown lightly on each side; for moist flavor and tenderness, cook meat to very rare only, about 4 minutes total (it cooks more later).
Transfer meat to a platter. To make ahead, meat can stand at room temperature for an hour; but to continue immediately, let stand at least 5 minutes.
To frying pan on high heat, add remaining ¼ cup broth. Stir to release browned bits, then add prepared sauce and stir until boiling rapidly; remove from heat.
Cut elk into ½-inch wide slices; drain juice from elk into frying pan. Return sauce to boiling on high heat, stirring. Add elk and stir gently to warm through, about 2 minutes.
To serve, spoon meat and sauce onto plates and sprinkle with chives.
Bog Cranberry Confit
Indigenous: cranberries, dried raspberries
Makes about 2 cups
3 cups (12-oz. package) fresh or frozen cranberries
1 cup freeze-dried unsweetened raspberries
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup water
Sort fresh cranberries and discard any soft or decayed fruit. Rinse, drain well. (Let frozen cranberries stand at room temperature at least 30 minutes.) Coarsely chop cranberries.
In a 4 to 5 quart pan, mix cranberries, raspberries, sugar and water. Bring to boil on high heat and stir often until mixture thickens (when you scrape spoon across pan bottom, the mixture stays separated), 5 to 6 minutes. Serve at room temperature. If made ahead cover and chill up to 2 weeks. Extras are good with other meats and poultry.
Wapato-style Gratin with Wild Mushrooms
Indigenous: wapato, wild dried mushrooms, ramps, bone broth
Imports: wheat bread, butter, cream
²/³ cup dried porcini mushrooms (about ¾ oz.)
2 cups coarse stale bread crumbs
¼ cup butter
1 cup finely chopped onion
1½ cups whipping cream
½ cup chicken or beef broth
3 lbs. waxy new potatoes, peeled and cut in ¼-inch cubes (6 cups)
¾ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
Preheat oven to 375°F. In a bowl, combine porcini mushrooms with 1½ cups boiling water. Let stand until cool, about 30 minutes. With your hand, squeeze mushrooms in water to release grit. Lift mushrooms from water and squeeze excess liquid back into bowl. Let soaking liquid stand a few minutes to settle grit, then carefully pour off and save 1 cup of the liquid; discard gritty remainder. Finely chop the mushrooms.
In a 4 to 5-quart pan over high heat melt butter. Add bread crumbs and stir until they smell toasted and are golden color, 3 to 4 minutes. Pour crumbs into a bowl and set aside.
In the same pan, combine mushrooms, the reserved soaking liquid, onion, cream, broth, potatoes, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil on high heat, stir often and let simmer about 5 minutes, then pour mixture into a shallow 4-quart casserole.
Cover casserole tightly with foil. Bake at 375°F until potatoes are just soft enough for a cube to mash when pressed with a fork, about 35 minutes.
Uncover potatoes and sprinkle evenly with buttered crumbs; continue to bake until top is well browned, about 10 minutes more. Spoon gratin onto plates.
Blueberrry-Hazelnut Steamed Pudding with Spirited Hard Sauce
Indigenous: preserved blueberries, hazelnuts
Imports: sugar, butter, domesticated chicken eggs, nutmeg, leavening, brandy
½ cup butter, in small chunks
1½ cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
½ tsp ground nutmeg
2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
¼ tsp salt
2½ tsp baking powder
6 Tbsp milk
1½ cups blueberries (soft and decayed fruit discarded), rinsed and drained well
¾ cup coarsely chopped roasted hazelnuts
½ cup water
2 Tbsp brandy
Butter a 2 to 3 quart plain pudding mold (it can be a deep oven-proof ceramic or metal bowl).
With a mixer, in a bowl beat butter with 1 cup of the sugar until very well blended. Add eggs and beat until thoroughly incorporated.
In another bowl, stir together nutmeg, flour, salt and baking powder. Add to butter mixture along with milk; mix on low speed to blend, then beat on high speed to mix well; scrape bowl often.
With a spoon stir berries and nuts into the batter.
Scrape batter into the buttered pudding mold or metal or ceramic bowl. If the mold has a lid, it should fit tightly. Otherwise, cover the filled mold with a double layer of foil and tie snugly under rim with cotton string to hold in place. To make pudding easier to lift in and out of hot water, tie a cross of string, secured under rim, over top of mold to make handle.
Set a rack (1 or 2 short tuna cans opened on both ends make a simple rack) in a pot deep enough to hold pudding mold when pot is covered with a lid. Set pudding in the pot and add enough water to the pot to come at least halfway up sides of the mold; pudding should not float; remove pudding.
On high heat bring water in the pot to a boil. Carefully set pudding down into water onto the rack, cover the pot and simmer for 2½ hours; as water evaporates, occasionally replenish to same level with more boiling water.
While pudding cooks, in a 1½ to 2 quart pan, combine the remaining ½ cup sugar with water. Bring to a boil on high heat and stir often until clear, 2 or 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add brandy.
Lift mold from water; let stand at least 15 minutes. Uncover, invert a serving plate onto the mold; holding plate and mold together, turn over and let stand until pudding slips out onto the plate. Then, still holding plate and mold together, tip pudding back into mold. Pour brandy mixture over pudding and let stand at least 15 minutes or 1 to 2 hours.
Once again, hold mold and serving plate together and invert pudding to release from mold. Cut pudding in wedges and accompany with spirited hard sauce.
Spirited Hard Sauce
½ cup butter, cut in small pieces
2 cups or more unsifted
3 Tbsp brandy
With a mixer, in a bowl beat butter until soft. Add 2 cups powdered sugar and mix slowly to combine with butter, then beat on high speed until fluffy. Add brandy and mix well. For a stiffer sauce, mix in more powdered sugar, ¼ cup at a time.
Serve at room temperature. If made ahead, cover airtight and chill up to 4 days.