Monday, May 26, 2014

Wild Bounty

Spring is inspiring.  Leafing trees and swollen streams.  Blossoms and bird's nests lined with fir needles.  And the parade of edibles- wild and cultivated!  The first lettuce, sprigs of gai lan, spicy radish, lamb's quarters and spring mushrooms.  

Despite this winter's heavy snowpack, western Montana's lowlands are pretty dry and crispy.  It hasn't rained a lot and we've had some hot, summery days.  To find the fungi, one must seek moist places.  Our four-person foraging party had some luck this weekend.
Photos courtesy of C. Brant and M. Sundeen
We also lucked into a large bundle of tender ditch asparagus and picked a few fistfuls of elder flowers.

We stuffed the heartiest morel specimens.  Mixed a log of goat cheese with yogurt, sun dried tomatoes, garlic, toasted sunflower seeds, fresh chives, sage and thyme, salt and pepper and packed it into a ziploc.  Cut the corner of the bag off and injected each cap with this delicious paste.  Then we rolled the mushrooms in beaten egg and breadcrumbs and fried them in butter and olive oil.  The larger the mushroom, the more they contribute a fungi-flavored punch to the fritters.  We found that the little guys got lost in all that butter, herbs and cheese.  

We breaded and fried the elder blossoms as well, which have a pleasant lemony-vegetal flavor when cooked.  M. grilled up the asparagus and a nice slab of Alaskan salmon.  

We were famished.  All we brought on our 5 hour forage was a stub of chorizo, a thermos of black tea and a flask of whiskey.  All of that kept us going somehow, but we were ready to feast.

 And feast we did. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Missoula County Public Schools Cook-off

Last month I had the honor of serving as a judge in the 1st Annual Missoula County Public Schools Student Culinary Competition.  Students from Big Sky, Sentinel and Hellgate High Schools gathered early at the University of Montana to fire up their induction burners and show off original recipes.  Awaiting the winning team was $1000 for their school's culinary program, a chef's kit for each team member and the satisfaction of seeing their meal served to students throughout Missoula. 

The event was sponsored by Garden City Harvest, FoodCorps and UM Dining.  I got involved in the competition as a member of the Garden City Harvest community.  

The competition was the brainchild of Peter Kerns, an ebullient FoodCorps service member who works with the MCPS Central Kitchen and Garden City Harvest's Farm to School program.  Peter organized the event and secured donations from local businesses and prize money from UM Dining.  He also jumped in to MC in place of Mayor John Engen, who was indisposed due to a family emergency.  

Students had 2 hours to complete their dishes and present them to the judges for tasting.  Each team's start time was staggered by 15 minutes so there was time to taste and discuss each dish before moving on.  

Photos courtesy of Genevieve Jessop Marsh
Each team included a coach from their school and Missoula College's Culinary Arts provided mentors but only students were allowed to cook.  Their dishes had to be savory entrees fit for a school cafeteria.

The teams were graded on the basis of the following criteria: 1. Overall flavor, quality, texture and doneness, 2. Presentation, 3. Creative use of local ingredients, 4. Nutritional value.   

My fellow judges were way more experienced in food systems than I and it was an enjoyable education to work with them.  They were:  Dick Williams, Assistant Cook and Farm to Table Program Assistant for MCPS, Rebecca Wade, Director of Health and Sustainability for UM Dining, and Ed Christensen, Assistant Supervisor for MCPS Food Service. 


Team Big Sky whipped up a delicious baked dish named Pasta Tsuber after one of the chefs.  Just about everything that went into Pasta Tsuber was grown and made in Montana- the egg noodles, ground beef, spices and cheese.  They plated this lasagna-like square of pasta with a side of garlic bread made with MT pickled garlic.  

Team Sentinel built a piece of flatbread from scratch and covered it with tender chunks of chicken, colby-jack cheese, onion, herbs, homemade yogurt ranch dressing and julienned strips of red, green and gold peppers soaked in ice water til they curled.  

Team Hellgate dazzled the eyes and taste buds with a Sweet Honey Dijon Chicken and Forbidden Rice: three ounces of perfectly cooked chicken breast (and that's not easy to do) awash in a golden honey-mustard-pineapple sauce atop a purple-black mound of forbidden rice.    

The grand prize went to Team Sentinel for their Peppy Chicken Flat Bread.

Team Sentinel

Hellgate took second place and received $500 and Big Sky came in third, receiving a check for $250.  Each of the dishes was so well executed that it was decided they all will be featured on the MCPS K-12 lunch menu.  

It was a treat to be involved in this event and to see students working hard and cooking together.  Judging by their enthusiasm, it was a rewarding experience for them as well. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

May Morning Forage

We spent this cloudy morning looking for edibles along the Bitterroot River.  The water is high and has sent swampy fingers into the cottonwood bottoms.  We watched an entire cottonwood snag drift down the center of the river like a gnarly raft.

Here's what we found:

The tender dandelion greens will go into a salad with pancetta, a simple shallot vinegarette and those few pristine morels fried crisp on top.  Perhaps some goat cheese.

The hawthorn blossom ends have been snipped up and are macerating in alcohol to make a heart tonic. 

And the new raspberry leaves will make a mild tea.

I like to remember that food is everywhere, and it doesn't take but an hour's walk in the morning to wind up with the foundations for lunch.  

We left this woody specimen to spore out on the riverbank.