Sunday, June 27, 2010

Northwest Flavors: Sweet Dark Cherries

As a kid, I loved the sweet English peas from our garden, thick Chinook salmon steaks that my father brought home from deep-sea fishing off Depoe Bay on the Oregon coast, strawberries we U-picked from berry fields scattered around east Multnomah County, lots of dill to accent flavors, and plump Bing cherries.

I do love the increasing variety and availability of marvelous local foods, but I hold a soft spot for the real flavors of my childhood. Don’t you?

One of my earliest memories is my family gathered around a huge old cherry tree to harvest juicy, almost black Bing cherries. Sadly this tree got cut down for a parking lot expansion. Still, I have a soft spot for Bings, although there are wonderful varieties now like Tietons, Chelans, Lamberts, and Rainiers from the Wenatchee and Okanogan valleys of north-central Washington.

Recently I’ve been throwing cherries in my salads with tender baby lettuce. Before things turn really warm and everything bursts into full-on summer profusion, wonderful baby greens show up at the markets. Like right now. If you see them, grab them. And treat them gently; they don’t need much dressing.

Here’s my current favorite salad, which is very simple yet elegant. The robust sweetness of the cherries balances well with the slightly bitter lettuce. Adjust the quantities to however many you are serving.

Tender Lettuce Cherry Salad

Gently tear clean and dry tender lettuce like red oak or butter/Boston into bite-sized pieces.

Top with slivered dark cherries like Bing, Lambert, or Chelan.

Throw on a some toasted slivered almonds.

Complete with a bit of minced fresh dill and/or chives.

Toss with a lemon vinaigrette, which is what I seem to be putting on almost everything lately (except my morning oatmeal).

Lemon Vinaigrette
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
zest of 1 lemon
2 cloves minced garlic
Combine the above ingredients and let rest for about 10 minutes.
Whisk in 3 T good quality olive oil until the dressing starts to thicken and emulsify.


Friday, June 11, 2010

Swamp Creek: Saving Salmon, One Stream at a Time

“…Salmon are among the oldest natives of the Pacific Northwest. … They are like silver threads woven deep into the fabric of the Northwest ecosystem. The decline of salmon to the brink of extinction is a clear sign of serious problems. The beautiful tapestry that the Northwesterners call home is unraveling; its silver threads are frayed and broken.”

-Jim Lichatowich from Salmon Without Rivers: a History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis

Would you like to help a threatened or endangered salmon run survive?

Not much more than a century ago, many of our rivers and streams here in the Pacific Northwest teemed with abundant salmon and steelhead runs. Thanks to humans, today the Puget Sound, Lower Columbia River, Upper Willamette River, and other Chinook salmon runs are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Across the region there are lots of opportunities to volunteer to help restore salmon streams, even if just for a few hours or a day (see links at the bottom of this post). A typical event includes clearing non-native, invasive plants and planting native plants and trees along streambanks, which improves habitat for salmon and their chances of spawning and survival.

On a recent lovely spring afternoon I kayak up Swamp Creek north of Seattle, one of my adopted salmon streams, to see how it’s faring. Back in the late 1990s, I helped organize and recruit a work party to plant willow, spruce, and western red cedar trees along its banks. Now this is the City of Kenmore’s new Swamp Creek Park and is targeted for some more habitat restoration through a conservation funding grant.

After putting in our kayaks at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s boat launch in Kenmore, we paddle about ¼-mile up the Sammamish River to the mouth of Swamp Creek.

Bird songs and brilliant greenery shout springtime as we ease our kayaks up the mostly placid stream. We pass several plump little red-winged blackbirds perched in willows, cattails, and alders that line the stream. Their songs begin with a sweet trill and end with a guttural buzz that sounds like a car slamming on its brakes. We also flush out a couple great blue herons, awkward yet oddly graceful as they tuck in their long necks and flap large wings to fly away.

Beneath us the stream is murky and green, its stillness broken by the plop-drip cadence of kayak paddles moving in and out of the water. Occasionally I hear a splash and see glint of silver—fish jumping.

“Wow, look at how much some of these trees have grown!” cries Julie. Several of the spruce trees we planted years ago have pushed 10 and even 20 or more feet toward the sky. Many are healthy trees glowing deep green and covered with clumps of newly sprouted needles.

Some trees, not so much.

One poor little tree that didn’t make it was cut and stripped by beavers that inhabit the creek.

I also spy fish remnants near the stream edge. Something was out here munching it.

Although several of the trees we planted close to the stream have grown and thrive, Swamp Creek Park is still a highly disturbed habitat overrun with invasive plants like Himalayan blackberries that threaten to choke out native plants like salmonberry. In the ecosystem chain, aquatic insects and other indigenous critters like salmon and birds need native plants for sustenance and refuge.

The numerous fish runs in the stream are struggling, and recent 2009 salmon monitoring surveys didn’t count any salmon returning to spawn upstream.

“Swamp Creek is having a few bad years,” says Sara Noland, a wetlands scientist from ESA Adolfson who is working with the City of Kenmore on the Swamp Creek Restoration Plan. The City’s plan is to root out invasive plants and replant with natives in a 3-acre area of the park that borders the creek.

“The ultimate goal is to get a core of community volunteers involved in supporting and monitoring the restoration efforts,” adds Sara. “It’s a pleasure to work on this project, and the community volunteer turnout for our April event at Swamp Creek was great!” More events will be planned for Swamp Creek, most likely starting again in autumn of 2010. (Check the City of Kenmore’s website if you live in the area.)

True, there’s a lot more to saving salmon than restoring stream habitat along streams or rivers. But small efforts can add up.

So how about starting with one of the many volunteer events around the region? Who knows, maybe you’ll make some new friends while you’re at it.

You can make a difference.

I sincerely thank you for your efforts!

When You Go
Lots of public and private organizations here in the Northwest are involved in salmon stream restoration. Here are some links, but you can also do a Web search for opportunities in your town: People for Puget Sound, Oregon Watersheds, King County (Washington), River Restoration Northwest. Chinook salmon photo from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Doe Bay Resort: Rustic Lodging, Gourmet Dining, Beautiful Setting

Are you willing to make a few tradeoffs for an affordable, relaxing San Juan Islands getaway?

Like the idea of soaking in hot mineral baths above a picturesque cove, dining on garden-fresh gourmet fare, and kayaking past plump purple starfish clinging to rock ledges?

Don’t mind temperamental plumbing, not-so-soundproof lodging, and communal kitchens and showers?

Doe Bay Resort on Orcas Island offers all of those things and more. What draws me back is the lovely, accessible waterfront setting with expansive views across Rosario Strait, and the friendly, tolerant ambience.

I just spent a few nights at Doe Bay and arrived home refreshed from all that clean island air. Yes, it was another drippy, cloudy Memorial Day weekend here in the Upper Left Hand corner. But if it bothered me too much, I’d up and leave.

I’m still here.

Getting There
Originally we planned to car camp at Doe Bay, but when we’re on the ferry to Orcas, the relentless rain doesn’t bode well for a comfy few days. “How about we call and see if there’s still an indoor room available,” I suggest.

Lucky us, somebody just cancelled their reservation on the top floor of the Ananda duplex. (Place names around Doe Bay Resort, such as Prana, Ganesh, and Ananda, are leftovers from its granola-hippie past, which isn’t completely gone but just evolved. Regular yoga classes, clothing-optional hot tubs, and communal gardening are still happening here.)

After a good lunch at Mia’s in Eastsound (the island-grown greens salad is gorgeous), we drive southeast down island and pull into Doe Bay mid-afternoon.

If you’re driving straight to Doe Bay from the Orcas Village ferry landing, it’s a meandering 30-minute drive along mostly tree-lined roads. Watch out for bicyclists lugging panniers along the narrow, shoulderless roads. Many are headed to Doe Bay, which offers a discount to those arriving by bicycle.

Doe Bay’s setting reminds me of a tiny seaside village, with small buildings scattered around the gently sloping site, fringed by verdant forest. A group of families with small kids is playing Frisbee on the lawn when we check in at the historic Doe Bay Store/Office.

Our building, tucked in the woods above the central lawn/open space, wouldn’t win any architectural awards. It looks like an off-kilter tree house without the tree. But it’s relatively comfortable and cozy, sort of like covered, heated camping. Spiraling bird songs (mostly varied thrush) echo through the trees, laying a lovely soundtrack.

“Otters!” says a woman as I walk down to the waterfront to take in the view.

About five brown river otters, their slick wet fur shining in a brief glimpse of sun, slither around the exposed, barnacle-encrusted rocks below, dipping in and out of the water in quick bursts. We’re close enough to see them prying food from the rocks with their front paws and stuff it into their mouths in quick gulps. The low tide, courtesy of a full moon, provides them a feast of mussels and other sea grub.

Since I was last here, the food at the Doe Bay Café has improved dramatically. Although the interior is still rustic and the floors in the old building slant a bit, the seasonal food is wonderful.

“We make the parpadelle pasta here with duck eggs from the island,” says our casual, friendly young waiter. I’m sold. The savory and incredibly tasty dish is spiked with wild black morel mushrooms, grilled asparagus, baby pear tomatoes, Swiss chard, and topped with an extravagant green crown of pea vines from the onsite organic garden. With great restraint, I leave a few bites of the perfectly cooked al dente pasta on my plate because, well, I really don’t need the calories.

Rich’s hazelnut-crusted scallops with greens, avocado, and grapefruit disappear completely, quickly. We’re enjoying the sweet, soulful harmonies of Homesick Elephant, a young neo-folk duo up from L.A., so we have to order strawberry-rhubarb shortcake to prolong our stay.

Of course there’s that communal kitchen. When I’m up early heating water for tea with my muffin, a beautiful Asian-American woman offers me some of her reheated pot roast. (Remember I said friendly?). I wonder how she manages to look so elegant before 8 a.m. in rubber boots and an old leather jacket

When the tide is low, kayaking off Doe Bay is like a waterborne trip to an aquarium. Close to the exposed rock faces that surround much of the San Juan Islands, we glide past clumps of orange and purple starfish (sea stars) splayed across the rocks as if frozen mid-dance. Below us under the clear water surface, translucent brown seaweed sways like dancers at a Grateful Dead concert. Above us bald eagles perched in treetops call out their plaintive, squeaky cries, and neon-red beaked oyster catchers peep-peep-peep.

We brought our own sea kayaks, but you can sign up for guided trips from the beach at Doe Bay led by Shearwater Kayak outfitters. Be careful of the strong currents in Rosario Strait, and don’t stray too far offshore during maximum flood or ebb tides if you’re a newbie kayaker. “You could get swept all the way up to B.C. in the strong currents,” warns the guy at the front desk when we check in and mention kayaking solo.

To get immersed (literally and figuratively) in the real spirit of Doe Bay, you really should soak in the hot tubs, which are set on a large covered deck overlooking a tidal cove. I reach the tiled tubs by walking down a gravel path through lush green woods and across a little wooden bridge over a rushing stream.

Although a few people have stripped to their birthday suits, I modestly strip to my bathing suit and ease first into the “mama bear” (medium temperature) of the three tubs. Everyone is mellow and friendly (yes, that word again) and we figure out we’re all from the Ballard area of Seattle.

After a few quick dips in the cool and hottest tubs, I loll a while in the medium tub until a large, talkative group descends. (For a quiet soak, go in the morning.) So I dry off, wander up to one of the wooden Adironack chairs by the water, and settle in with my book.

Now this is relaxing.

When You Go
Here’s a map showing Doe Bay’s location on Orcas Island. I didn’t have any trouble getting a campsite ($35/night) just a couple weeks before Memorial Day, but that changes during the summer and early fall. Our room was $85/night. Bring your own flip flops if you’re using the communal showers, and a tolerant attitude towards the fussy toilets.