Saturday, October 27, 2012

Matsutake and Shellfish Soup

I've been getting emails about our lackluster fall mushroom season in the Pacific Northwest. Even NPR did a story on it—and they pretty much got it right. The mushrooms tried to pop right on schedule—and in some cases, such as with lobsters and white chanterelles, they succeeded—but the long dry spell in September burned much of the crop and then that first big storm in mid-October wiped it out.

Many a mushroom hunter was hoping the rain would have the immediate effect of causing a huge—if belated—flush. My hunch is that the mycelia had already formed primordia, and the deadly combo of drought followed by deluge dealt a knockout one-two punch. At this point we should be hoping for winter species like yellowfeet and hedgehogs, though I'm not optimistic.

The other day I picked a spot on the Olympic Peninsula that's usually carpeted with mushrooms this time of year. We salvaged a few matsutake and passed by many more that had clearly suffered heat exhaustion. Yellowfeet were nowhere in evidence, and just a couple hogs had managed to fruit. A half-dozen cauliflower mushrooms saved the day, but even those showed signs of distress with obvious yellowing of the ruffles.

Cauliflower mushroom
Still, a half-pound of #4 matsutake is all it takes to make a good meal, and there's something sweet about using wild main ingredients from two different kingdoms. This is a dish I had once over at Idle Wylde, the home of Foraged and Found Edibles proprietor Jeremy Faber. In typical fashion, he didn't even remember making it when I asked for the recipe. I told him it included manila clams, matsutake, and leeks. "Makes sense," he said, "matsi and shellfish go together." So I tried to reconstruct it from my own hazy memory banks and the result was astonishingly good. At least, that's what Marty said, and I have to agree.

1/2 lb matsutake mushrooms (or more), sliced
1 lb littleneck clams in the shell, scrubbed
1 lb mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
2 leeks, white part only, sliced
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 cup sake
1 cup chicken stock
1 scallion, thinly sliced for garnish

1. Saute sliced leeks in peanut oil in heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, 2 minutes.

2. Add matsutake and cook together another couple minutes, stirring occasionally. Add sake and chicken stock and allow to simmer together a few minutes so the broth absorbs the singular matsi flavor.

3. Raise heat to high, add shellfish, and cover. Remove from heat when the clams and mussels have opened, careful not to overcook. Ladle into bowls and garnish with sliced scallion.

Serves 2 for dinner, or 4 as an appetizer.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Foraging's Golden Rule

It happens every year. Someone eats poisonous mushrooms and winds up in the hospital—or worse. Then I get well-meaning emails from concerned friends and acquaintances.

This fall a Connecticut woman poisoned her whole family. Reports say the mushrooms she picked in her back yard and fed to her husband and two daughters was the notorious Destroying Angel, Amanita bisporigera (pictured at top). If that's true, the family got off lucky. Three of them were released from medical care last week with their own livers. A fourth remained in the hospital, and—lucky for her—was being treated with silibinin, an experimental drug widely used in Europe and only recently available in the U.S.

The toxins in deadly Amanitas such as the Destroying Angel and the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) inhibit cell production in the liver and kidneys. Symptoms often don't occur until several hours after ingestion and include vomiting and severe abdominal pain, followed by liver and kidney failure, hepatic coma, and death. There is no antidote. Patients are typically treated with charcoal solutions. Silibinin, made from an extract of milk thistle, seems to have antihepatotoxic properties—that is, it protects liver and kidney cells from toxins—and looks to be the most promising cure at the moment.

Great new experimental drugs aside, the best cure is to not eat poisonous mushrooms in the first place! Stories like this scare people. But it's still possible to enjoy the many pleasures of mycophagy (mushroom eating) without a trip to the hospital and a long recovery. Simply observe foraging's golden rule: never eat anything that you can't identify without 100 percent certainty.

To learn the skills of mushroom identification, take a class, join a mycological society, go into the field with a trusted mentor. Learn key field characteristics by studying actual mushrooms with mushroom experts—not by looking at pictures in field guides. Respect the limits of your knowledge. Some species are easy to learn. Chanterelles, porcini, and morels are among our tastiest wild mushrooms and relatively easy to identify. Other species require more skill. Go slow and enjoy the process.

The consequences of blithely nibbling your way through the wild are too grave. For another Halloween mushroom scare fest, read this harrowing account of a near-fatal encounter with the Destroying Angel.

Photo at top by Cornell Fungi.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Wild Berry Sorbet

We finally got a light drizzle, and forecasters are calling for actual rain later this weekend. In two decades of living in Seattle I've never seen a fall like this. The mushroom season was basically a non-starter. Fungi began to appear right on schedule despite the dry conditions, especially lobsters and white chanterelles, but without a drop in September and the first third of October, most mushrooms stalled out and withered beneath the duff.

The weather, or lack of it, has been tough on the region's commercial foragers. Normally golden chanterelles and porcini are the focus this time of year. Instead, the pickers have been extending the huckleberry harvest.

My own freezer is filled with bags of huckleberries, too, and blackberries. My daughter can't get enough for smoothies, yogurt parfaits, panna cotta, coffee cake, and other treats. These are the go-to uses for berries in our family, in addition to my own favorite, cobbler. Looking for something new, I turned to Foraged Flavor by Tama Matsuoka Wong for inspiration. Wong is the house forager for New York's Daniel restaurant, part of Daniel Boulud's empire. With help from the restaurant's chef de cuisine, Eddy Leroux, she's given the usual dirt-under-the-fingernails foraging book a more culinary twist. Arranged by season, Foraged Flavor is a catalogue of wild foods (with an East Coast emphasis) and recipes that have passed muster in Manhattan's cutthroat dining scene.

"Although sometimes startling and sharp," Wong writes in the introduction, "a wild taste is often more complex...with a symphony of flavors and notes. Similarly, wild plants look and act more like individuals, as they have not been airbrushed or altered to sit on a supermarket shelf like Hollywood stars." Amen.

Most foraging books are identification guides that dwell on the finding rather than the cooking. Wong's book takes a different approach with its focus on cuisine. True, the book comes with color plates in a DK style and helpful notes on habitat and key characteristics. But it is the scores of recipes, more than eighty in all, that will make this a dog-earred addition to the forager's bookshelf.

The recipes are spare and simple, highlighting the arresting flavors of the foraged ingredient. There are several variations on salads (e.g., Cardamine Cress with Fennel and Orange Vinaigrette), dips (Garlic Mustard Eggplant Dip), and syrups (Pineapple Weed Syrup). Some of the recipes that have caught my eye, earning a bookmark for later: Curried Lamb and Lambsquarters Meatballs, Sweet and Sour Daikon Radish with Crushed Juniper Berries, and Candied Violet Flowers.

Say the authors on their recipe for Wild Berry Popsicles: "The rich and layered blend of berry tastes make this an out-of-the-ordinary treat." If you're lacking in popsicle moulds, make a sorbet instead, as I did with an equal mix of huckleberries and blackberries.

1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups wild mixed berries

1. In medium saucepan, bring to boil 2 cups water, sugar, and vanilla extract. Remove from heat.

2. In a blender, puree the berries and then add the sugar syrup. Blend together until smooth (about 2 minutes). Strain through fine mesh or cheesecloth. Spoon into moulds and freeze until solid, at least 4 hours.

Manhattan may have a highly critical restaurant clientele, but this simple sorbet got the thumb's up from the most exacting berry aficionado I know.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Elderflower Panna Cotta with Elderberry Syrup

I'm sure I don't have to ask whether you put up quantities of elderflower cordial and elderberry syrup this year...right? I'll confess that I skipped the berries—too much travel away from home this summer to make a jaunt to the far side of the mountains where the blue elderberry grows. Luckily I have a half-pint left over from last year, along with a good amount of the cordial.

The Brits have a fondness for elderflower desserts, in particular Elderflower Panna Cotta. Do a search online and you'll find all these great recipes—in grams and milliliters. Believe me, I feel bad that I'm clueless about the metric system. I was part of that generation that started to switch over in school, for maybe a year, until Reagan was elected and put that communist conspiracy out to pasture.

So for all you New World Elderflower Panna Cotta lovers out there, here's a recipe in good ol' Americanese. Pay attention, it's a toughie.

1 pint heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar*
1/4 oz granulated, unsweetened gelatine**
1/2 cup elderflower cordial
elderberry syrup (optional)

* I used regular granulated sugar. Ideally you would use finer baker's sugar, known in the UK as caster sugar.

** My grocery didn't have sheets of gelatine, so I bought a 1-oz box of four gelatine packets. The first time I made the Panna Cotta I used two packets, totaling a 1/2 oz of gelatine. The general consensus at home was that it was too firm and gelatinous, if that makes sense. The second time I cut the gelatine in half and the result was perfect.

1. Heat the cream in a saucepan until not quite boiling. DO NOT BOIL.

2. Slowly whisk in sugar, making sure it dissolves thoroughly. Next, slowly whisk in the gelatine, making sure that dissolves thoroughly as well. If you're not careful it will clump and ruin the texture of your Panna Cotta.

3. Remove from heat and stir in elderflower cordial. The flavor of elderflower is delicate and easily cooked off if subject to excessive heat. Allow to cool for a few minutes.

4. Pour into ramekins, tea cups, or moulds and refrigerate for four hours or overnight. I lightly greased my ramekins with butter. To remove Panna Cotta, dip the ramekin in a bowl of hot water for a minute or two and run the tip of a sharp knife around the edge. Shake out Panna Cotta.

5. Serve with a spoonful of elderberry syrup drizzled over the top. Contrary to most of the images of Elderflower Panna Cotta you'll see online, served in big round quivering portions, I like to slice it into wedges. Seems more appetizing that way, to me at least. Garnish with a mint leaf or berries.

With less gelatine this Panna Cotta has a smooth, silky, custardy texture. It's so easy to make and so delicious that you'll momentarily forget the stupidity of being stuck with cups and feet.