Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Farro with Porcini, Chanterelles & Mascarpone

What the heck is farro, you ask? It's an ancient form of hulled wheat that's low-yielding and similar to barley or wheat-berries in texture, and despite being in vogue of late, farro is actually among the oldest of agricultural products. It was first domesticated nearly 10,000 years ago in the Near East, most likely in present-day Turkey. Today it is eaten more in Itlay than anywhere else, and in the mountainous regions of The Boot there are no fewer than three closely related relict grains commonly referred to as farro: emmer, spelt, and einkorn. Apparently these hard-scrabble grains make a good crop for highlands and poor soils.

My first taste of farro was at Lark restaurant in Seattle several years ago. Lark uses a local variety grown and packaged by Bluebird Grain Farms in the Methow Valley of Eastern Washington, a Shangri-La on the dry side of the Cascade Mountains known for its excellent backpacking, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing. Bluebird's farro of choice is emmer (Triticum dicoccum).

They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, which means the kitchen is a place of nearly constant praise. Most home cooks I know, myself included, spend the majority of their time either trying to perfect recipes out of a book or web site, or trying to recreate memorable meals they've enjoyed at restaurants. We leave the truly creative work to the pros and hope to capture a little of their light from time to time—such as the other night, when I finally got around to imitating John Sundstrom's creamy farro dish that I've ordered countless times at Lark. It's a simple dish. Farro is combined with sauteed wild mushrooms and a healthy dollop of mascarpone to give it the creamy unctuousness that has you coming back for more. Yet within that simplicity there is a wide range of skill required to properly cook both the grain and the fungi.

I often hear would-be mycophagists complaining about their chanterelles turning slimy with cooking. This is a rookie mistake and can be solved with one easy reminder (provided the chanties aren't water-logged): never crowd chanterelles in the pan. For most recipes you want to cook the water out of the mushrooms. A good saute pan heated with a little butter or oil is up to the task—just don't try to cook too many at once. When they've expelled their water, the mushrooms can continue to brown in the pan provided there's enough surface area for the water to evaporate. This also helps concentrate their flavor.

These particular chanterelles, both white and golden, came from a recent trip to the Rogue River Canyon in southwestern Oregon. Other wild mushrooms work just as well. At Lark I've had the dish with hedgehogs, yellowfoots, and black trumpets. Sometimes John adds a vegetable to it such as green beans for a dash of color and added texture. Word on the commercial street is that it was a poor chanterelle harvest this year. Maybe so, but it's also been a long harvest. Normally by Thanksgiving week Seattle would have had several hard frosts and the chanterelles—except for those in the most favorable of microclimates—would be returning to the earth. Instead they keep fruiting across much of their usual low-elevation habitat. I'm not opposed.

As for the farro, I only have this one episode under my belt so I'm hardly qualified to instruct, but it would seem that one has a wide range of mouth feel to work with when cooking this whole grain, not to mention ample time. Add more water and cooking time if you prefer a softer, more yielding bite. You can also soak the grain overnight.

1 cup farro
3 cups warm water
1-2 oz dried porcini, pulverized (optional)
4 oz mascarpone
1/2 lb chanterelles, chopped
2 tbsp butter
1 clove garlic, minced
salt & pepper

I don't know whether John uses porcini dust in his version but my feeling is that the essence of edulis improves just about any hearty dish in the dark months.

1. Reconstitute the porcini in 3 cups of warm water. Set aside for 10 minutes.
2. Pour porcini water in pot, salt the water, and bring to boil. Add farro, lower heat to simmer and cook until water is gone, about 40 minutes. Farro should be al dente yet tender. You can add more or less water and cook until desired softness. There's a lot of leeway and personal preference with farro.
3. Saute chanterelles for several minutes in butter in a large skillet, or in batches. Avoid slimy chanterelles by not crowding. You want the mushrooms to be lightly browned and firm.
4. Stir mascarpone into farro, then stir in most of chanterelles, reserving some as garnish. Season and garnish with chopped chives or parsley.

We served the farro with sauteed kale from the garden and sliced Steak au Poivre. The steak was organic and grass-fed, with a single 8-ounce New York strip plenty enough to feed two of us along with the other sides. A bottle of cabernet completed the meal.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Going Rogue

Every year in mid-November I help my friend Bradley close up his cabin near the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon. The Rogue is one of only a handful of coastal rivers that can boast a significant roadless section, in this case a 30-plus mile stretch of river that flows through the Congressionally designated Wild & Scenic lower canyon and the adjacent Rogue River Wilderness. It's rugged country filled with bears, cougars, hermits, and goldpanners. After the chores are attended to, we hike the trails, fish for steelhead, hunt mushrooms, and whump up big meals on the wood stove.

This annual trip is pretty much the capper on my year of wild food foraging.

Long Live the Queen

I don't get many opportunities to pick queen boletes (Boletus regineus). They're most often found in mixed woodlands of the coastal mountains to the south of me, in Northern California and Southern Oregon, particularly the lower elevations where tanoak thrives and puts the hurt on anyone hoping to bushwhack around those river valleys below snowline. I've never found them in Washington, probably because I rarely encounter tanoak here.

Besides habitat, the best way to distinguish the king and queen in the field is cap color (see photo at right). Queen boletes will have darker caps at maturation, sometimes a rich mahogany brown, and the younger specimens, while often lacking dark caps at this stage, will frequently have a whitish bloom across the cap that can be rubbed off with your finger. They're generally smaller than kings too.

One of the cool things about the queen is that it fruits later than the king, at least where I pick it, and often in troops, so you can still get fresh porcini even after the kings have gone to dirt. Our queen is not the same species as the one found in the Old World. That's Boletus aereus, which by all accounts rivals Boletus edulis, the king, for its porcini flavor and aroma. Boletus regineus is similar with its dark brown cap but tastes milder. On the plus side, the flesh is white and firm like the king yet often lacks the insect infestations of its more heralded partner in royalty.

We ate the queen with steak one night and sauteed it up with black trumpets another night to serve over crackers.

Blow Your Horn

Speaking of black trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides), this is another species I only see in the Rogue. We never find large quantities, just enough to savor that wonderful woodsy, almost smoky flavor. Northern California is the strike zone for the trumpet. I've heard professional foragers reminisce about enormous patches in the hills just inland from the Pacific.

Supposedly there are a few patches of well-guarded trumpets in Washington but I've never found them. Instead I look to the Rogue each year to satisfy my craving. Sometimes we get just a taste that must last us through the year.

"They're not big, but they don't know it."

The owner of the Silver Sedge Fly Shop told me that years ago when I stopped in to buy some fly-tying materials. He was talking about immature steelhead that probe the lower Rogue River before dropping back into the salt to finish their growth. Known as "half-pounders" to locals, these torpedo-shaped flashes of silver average 12 to 15 inches yet attack flies with the hellbent abandon of much larger fish and they're a hoot on light fly gear.

As in previous years, I took a single hatchery half-pounder home to share with the family so they could get a taste of the Rogue. The other fish, most of them wild, were released back into the drink.

You betcha.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Spiced Up Take-Out

Chinese take-out. It's one of the great pleasures in life, especially if the take-out is good and cheap. I've got a favorite Szechuan joint not too far from home. It sits nearly anonymously on the edge of the International District in an uninspiring little strip mall called "Asian Plaza." The restaurant's name is equally original: Szechuan Cuisine. Before it was remodeled it didn't even have a recognizable name, just a bunch of faded Chinese characters strewn haphazardly above the door.

Those faded characters seemed like a good omen to a bunch of us wandering around looking for lunch one day more than a decade ago. By our third or fourth trip we were calling it The House, as in: "Should we pay a visit to The House today?" There was no denying it was the go-to lunch spot for a bunch of us who worked together, our house lunch establishment. You could order 25 pot-stickers for $3.50. Prices have gone up since then. Now you get 20 pot-stickers for $4.95.

The House is known for its Hot Pot but usually we order more obvious stuff like Ants on a Tree or Twice Cooked Pork. I'm a sucker for the salty-sweet nothings of the General Tso-ish Manadarin Spicy Chicken, and the Garlic Beef makes other versions seem pedestrian at best.

Rather than get bogged down in the kitchen this Halloween Eve, Marty and I wanted to watch some scary movies with the kids and eat popcorn and candy. The House to the rescue! But this time I had a little home-made treat to spruce up our plates of take-out: Szechuan Pickled Fungi & Vegetables.

The fungi were cauliflower mushrooms (Sparassis radicata) picked near the Columbia River Gorge a few weeks ago. While driving from a book reading in Hood River to the Wordstock Lit Fest in Portland I stopped off in the hills above the Gorge to go for a hike. The trail contoured across a steep pitch shaded by old-growth fir and hemlock. Horses had been on it recently. I didn't expect to see much in the way of mushrooms along this rather dry section of trail, but a mile or so in I came across my first cauliflower mushrooms of the year, a pair of recently emerged specimens of average size, each one weighing a few pounds.

Cauliflowers are delicious mushrooms and they can be huge. A few years ago someone brought a 50-pound cauliflower to the Puget Sound Mycological Society's annual exhibit. The mushroom boasts a nutty flavor and firm texture that doesn't soften with cooking like so many other species. Even after braising in a stew for an hour they remain al dente, which is a good way to describe the texture since this mushroom resembles nothing so much as a bowl full of cooked egg noodles. Its wavy protrusions and deep clefts are expert at trapping duff and forest debris, making the cauliflower one of the more difficult mushrooms to clean. Worms like them too. The trick, as with so many tasty mushrooms, is to find them before the worms do—or else cut away the infestations as best as possible.

Szechuan Pickled Fungi & Vegetables

Szechuan peppercorns are the key ingredient. Not really pepper, the spice is actually the husk of a type of berry widespread through Asia. When consumed, it gives the mouth and lips a numb tingling feeling that works well with other hot spices commonly found in Szechuan foods.

1 lb cauliflower mushroom, boiled for a few minutes and cut into pieces
1 lb Napa cabbage, pulled apart and cut into 2-inch squares
1/2 lb diakon radish, sliced into 1/4-inch thick half-moons or matchsticks
2 carrots, sliced on an angle into 1/4-inch thick ovals
6-8 hot peppers cut in half and de-seeded
1/4 cup sliced ginger
2 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns
2 tbsp vodka
6-8 cups water, boiled and cooled
3 tbsp salt

Mix the brine and Szechuan peppercorns in a large tupperware or other non-reactive container. Stir in vodka; this is strictly for sanitary reasons. Add vegetables, fungi, and spices, making sure they are immersed completely in the brine. Cover and store at room temperature for 3-5 days. After the initial pickling, the contents can be refrigerated for 2 weeks.