Monday, January 30, 2012

Puree of Parsnip & Watercress Soup

So often in our land of plenty, opening the refrigerator risks a trip to the culinary version of the Island of Misfit Toys. In keeping with the leftover theme from recent posts, a hearty soup is always a good way to provide a home for the forlorn knickknacks hanging around well past their due-date, especially when you can combine the old with the startlingly new.

Recently we signed up to get a weekly box of fruits and vegetables delivered to our door by Full Circle Farms, near Seattle. This is a modified CSA, with plenty of locally grown produce and a smattering of other items that one isn't likely to harvest in Washington State in January—or any other month, for that matter (satsumas, anyone?)—almost all of it organic. The kids love racing to the door each Wednesday morning before school to see what the farm fairy has left us.

This system is not without its challenges, however. If you're not on top of your game, the boxed goodies can start to accumulate. Looking through the fridge the other day I found, among other things, an old parsnip, two onion halves in separate baggies, a peeled Yukon Gold potato, and a partial head of celery that was beginning to go limp. There was also a nearly full quart of chicken stock that needed to be used immediately or chucked. To these disparate ingredients I added the beautifully robust wild watercress picked in California and some black trumpet mushrooms from the same trip.

2 - 3 tbsp butter
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 medium parsnip, chopped
1 potato, chopped
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 large bunch watercress, stemmed
salt and white pepper, to taste

1. In a soup pot, saute onions in butter over medium heat until slightly caramelized. Add garlic and celery and cook another few minutes until tender, then add chopped parsnip and potato and cook several more minutes.

2. Stir in stock and simmer for 15 or more minutes until parsnip and potato are tender.

3. Add the watercress, allowing it to wilt. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup. Adjust seasonings.

As a finishing touch, I made a crouton with toasted and garlic-rubbed rosemary bread covered in melted mozzarella cheese and topped with a trio of sautéed black trumpets.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cantonese Shrimp & Winter Mushrooms

Happy year of the dragon! We celebrated earlier this week with a feast that included this classic Cantonese preparation, adding to the wok a few handfuls of wild winter mushrooms from Northern California to make it even better. Black trumpets and yellowfoot chanterelles, though not typical Asian fare, are well suited to such a dish with their slightly fruity flavors.

2 tbsp peanut oil
1 tbsp ginger, diced
1 tbsp garlic, diced
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
1/2 lb yellowfoot and black trumpet mushrooms, cleaned and uncut
1/2 lb Chinese leafy green (e.g. bok choy, choy sum)
1/2 lb shrimp, shelled

White Sauce
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp Shaoxing wine
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp corn starch
6 tbsp chicken stock
1/4 tsp sesame oil

Mix sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside. Heat oil in wok over high heat. Add ginger and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add onions and garlic and stir-fry another minute before adding mushrooms. Cook together a few minutes, then add leafy greens and shrimp. When the shrimp begin to color, give sauce a stir and add to wok. Cook, stirring, until shrimp is tender. Serve immediately, then do a dragon dance.

Monday, January 23, 2012

California Is for Foragers

I dodged Seattle's Snowpacalypse 2012 for a week in NorCal, fleeing back home just as the volley of storms continued south and transformed the Chetco, Smith, and other coastal rivers into angry brown torrents. This was a "working vacation" spent gathering material for the next book, but it was also an excuse to see some of the best that the region has to offer.

In a brief week I managed to pack in three redwood hikes, including an amazing 12-mile loop through the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park that took me out to a lonely Pacific beach where my footprints were the only human presence for miles, and another in Jedediah State Park in a windy downpour that dumped lichens and branches down upon me besides the rain.

The redwoods earn all their accustomed superlatives and more. I recommend a winter visit when you can be alone among the thousand-year-old trees and contemplate the forces that bequeathed us a mere one percent of the original ancient forest. Talk about one-percenter.

I joined a wild harvester friend of mine for winter pick on the Lost Coast (pictured at top), where we gathered 25 pounds of watercress from a pristine spring, the season's first greens. (I've been eating a salubrious watercress salad pretty much every day since then.) Stinging nettles and miner's lettuce were just beginning to hit their stride at this latitude.

My friend calls the old-growth redwood forest "bad medicine," an expression he picked up from a local Indian man. If you're a mushroom picker, this is no doubt true—not much in the way of commercial mushrooms grows beneath the world's tallest trees besides the odd hedgehog here and there. On the other hand—and this is one of the great ironies of the trade—the cutover redwood forests are filled with, not surprisingly, redwood decay, and where there is decay there is fungus. Hundred-year-old stumps as big as Volkswagen bugs now fill woods mostly shaded by tanoak, madrone, and Douglas-fir. Mushrooms that prefer this decay include bellybutton hedgehogs and yellowfoot chanterelles. But even better, in this mycophagist's opinion, is a species that seems to be mycorrhizal with the deciduous trees and yet needs some of that redwood decay to really prosper: the black trumpet (Craterellus cornucopioides).

It's not a good year in NorCal for winter pick. Those weeks of high winter barometer up and down the Pacific Northwest conspired to stunt the fruiting of mushrooms. Places that one might expect to be loaded with fungi are strangely bare. It remains to be seen whether the recent storms can reverse the trend. Pickers I spoke to in the Brookings area just over the border figured that the late rain would actually put an end to their season, but farther to the south the effects may be the opposite. I can say that I found quite a few babies in one upland patch in Humboldt that will certainly be flourishing in a couple weeks.

Back home I returned to a fridge filled with half-finished stuff. Such unappreciated riches shouldn't be thought of as a burden. The dog's breakfast is perfect way to get creative in the kitchen, and sometimes you make something unexpected and delicious that becomes part of the regular repertoire. A quick inventory revealed a partially eaten package of prosciutto, two Italian sausages, a corner of parmesan, and a big yogurt container filled with an accumulation of leftover diced tomatoes. What a bonanza!

With the tomatoes I made a simple red sauce with garlic and olive oil and let this simmer for an hour, adding water occasionally as it thickened. I sliced the prosciutto (about two ounces) into strips and crumbled the sausage, browning both in a little olive oil. To this I added two huge handfuls of black trumpet mushrooms. Meanwhile I brought a pot of water to boil and add a pound of pappardelle. Just before the pasta was cooked, I added two handfuls of stemmed watercress to the meat-and-mushroom mixture and allowed it to wilt. The plated pasta got a ladleful of red sauce and a few spoonfuls of the meat-mushroom-watercress. Shavings of parm added the finishing touch.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Candy Cap Braised Pork

Most recipes for candy cap mushrooms are sweet pastries, puddings, and other desserts. Yet candy caps, with their essence of maple syrup, also demand to be paired with pig. Having made the classic baked treat à la fungi—Candy Cap Cookies—I decided to switch my experiments to something savory (though a Candy Cap Bread Pudding sounds pretty good, too).

So I went to my local meat shop and got a little more than three pounds of pork shoulder, which the butcher kindly cut into large chunks. This was a start. I wasn't sure where I was going but Indian spices seemed like a reasonable next step, and maybe some dried prunes to accentuate the sweetness of the mushrooms and perhaps a splash or two (or three) of port wine. Yes, these ingredients would work together. With a nod to typical French braising, I added carrots and onions, but the final cilantro garnish would make it clear that this was not a dish with two feet in the Western culinary canon—more like a straddling of East and West.

Here, then, is a simple recipe built around dried candy cap mushrooms that is not a dessert.

1 cup dried candy caps, rehydrated with a 1 1/2 cups warm water
3 lbs boneless pork shoulder, cut into large chunks
2 tbsp olive oil
1 yellow onion, sliced into half moons
2 - 3 carrots, sliced into rounds
1 dozen prunes
1 cup port
2 bay leaves

1 tbsp garam masala
1 tsp salt
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp turmeric

1. In a medium sized bowl, rehydrate 1 cup dried candy cap mushrooms in enough warm water to cover, about 1 1/2 cups, for 20 minutes. Remove mushrooms and wring out excess liquid back into bowl. Soak prunes in stock.

2. Meanwhile, pre-heat oven to 325 degrees. Mix together rub ingredients and apply to pork chunks. Heat olive oil in a dutch oven or casserole over medium-high flame and brown meat, in batches if necessary.

3. Remove meat and add onions and carrots. Lower heat to medium and cook several minutes, stirring, until vegetables begin to soften. Add prunes, mushrooms, bay leaves, stock, and wine. Bring to a boil and return meat to pot. Spoon some of the vegetables on top. Liquid should mostly cover the meat but not entirely. Cover and put in oven for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until meat falls apart.

The maple syrupy mushrooms marry nicely with the Indian spices. Substitute red or white wine for the port if you prefer. The finished pork, falling apart among bright orange bobs of stewed carrot, begs for a bright green garnish of cilantro—and I might have added a dollop of Greek yogurt on top if I'd had any. Served over this couscous, the meal was perfect for a wet winter evening.

And it just got better the next day: pulled pork sandwiches!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

New Classes Announced

I'm pleased to announce that I'll be returning again this year to Bainbridge Island Parks & Recreation to teach foraging classes. To see class descriptions, click here and scroll down to pages 35 -36 to "Bounty of the Land." You can also find updated class listings (plus readings, lectures, and so on)  posted in the right column of this blog near the top, under the heading "Upcoming Events & Classes."

Spring classes scheduled so far:

  • March 28, Stinging Nettles: We'll divide our time between the field and the kitchen, foraging tasty and nutritious stinging nettles and then preparing a delicious recipe.
  • April 7, Shellfish: Learn how to dig clams, shuck oysters, and cook a gourmet meal right on the beach.
  • May 7, Shellfish: Learn how to dig clams, shuck oysters, and cook a gourmet meal right on the beach.

Additionally, I'll be offering my wild edible nature walk again this spring, an easy 3-hour ramble in a state park near Seattle. Stay tuned for dates.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Candy Cap Cookies

Ever eaten mushroom cookies? Nah, not that kind. These cookies will only give you a sugar high.

This is a post I meant to write more than a year ago, after making a trip to Mendocino at the end of November, just as the California mushroom season was hitting its stride and Washington State was nodding off for the season. Here we are little more than a year later in the same place: my home turf is only putting out a few yellowfoot chanterelles (I found some on a walk the other day, which went well with the Christmas stuffing), while to the south you might get into some late matsutake, hedgehogs, and that headliner of winter mushrooms, the black trumpet. Another coastal species to keep an eye out for: the candy cap.

Candy caps (Lactarius rubidus) are smallish gilled mushrooms that bleed a latex-like fluid when cut, a characteristic of the Lactarius genus. In the case of candy caps, the fluid is only slightly lactic, with a thin, watery skim milk consistency. The mushrooms are generally orangish to cinnamon-colored and hollow-stemmed—not exactly useful identifiers for West Coast species of Lactarius, since there are many that fit this bill, most of which you wouldn't want to eat. The best field mark I've come across involves touch. Run a finger over the pileus of a candy cap and feel a cool, slightly bumpy texture, not unlike a tangerine peel. The sweet smell is another characteristic, though not diagnostic.

I've never seen candy caps in Washington. Their strike zone seems to be the coastal mixed forests of Northern California, where I've found them among redwoods and Douglas-fir interspersed with oaks and madrones, usually in damp areas with lots of moss and decaying wood, often near forest edges, trails, and road cuts. In Mendocino, with my friend Sinclair Philip, who took the photo at left, I found good quantities fruiting near a stream in open, park-like woods behind a regional hospital.

Mushrooms, with their deep umami, are generally thought of in terms of savory dishes. A few species, notably those in the Cantharellaceae family such as chanterelles and black trumpets, exude a hint of stone fruit that is unusual in the fungal kingdom, but only rarely do mushrooms land on the dessert menu. The candy cap, as its common name suggests, is a break from this tradition. Its singular culinary attribute is most obvious after the mushroom has been dried: an aroma redolent of maple syrup.

I found enough candy caps on my 2010 trip to play around in the kitchen, but it was Nate Segraves at the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz who kindly set me up with a mason jar full of dried candy caps to do some serious experimentation. For the usual reasons, that experimentation didn't find a vent until this past week. My first attempt was a simple cookie recipe from David Arora's All that the Rain Promises, a classic way to use candy caps (recipe below).

I've also enjoyed the candy cap in a martini served by chef Chris Czarnecki at the Joel Palmer House while dining with his father, Jack. And I plan to use my candy cap stock to make a sauce at some point soon, maybe with slow-cooked pork shoulder. A quick word to the wise, though: my own experience suggests that you should try to use your dried candy caps within a year; unlike dried morels or porcini, which only get better with age, candy caps seem to lose some of their maple syrupy kick over time.

Back to the confections. This is a basic refrigerator cookie recipe that's goosed with candy caps—a good way to showcase the unusual flavor of the mushrooms. Share these with your friends and then casually mention, after they've tucked into a few, that the star ingredient is fungi.

1 cup dried candy cap mushrooms
1 cup butter, softened, plus extra for sauté
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour, sifted
1/2 cup toasted pecans, chopped

1. Rehydrate dried mushrooms for 20 minutes in enough warm water to cover. Wring out excess liquid, pat dry with paper towel, chop, and sauté several minutes with a nob of butter over medium heat. Save stock for another use.

2. Cream together butter and sugar. Beat in egg and vanilla. Slowly add flour while stirring, then chopped nuts and sautéed candy caps.

3. Roll cookie dough into three logs, each about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. I use wax paper and a sushi roller. Wrap logs in wax paper and freeze.

4. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Slice cookies about 1/4 inch thick and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 8 - 10 minutes until bottoms of cookies are golden brown.

Serve to mycophobic friends with a tall glass of milk.