Sunday, November 25, 2012

Frozen Matsutake

I found two frosty packages in the back of the freezer the other day: matsutake buttons, four of them. According to the labels, I had picked them in October, 2010. Two years in the deep freeze!

The matsi were individually wrapped in foil. One pair was sealed in a Ziploc, the other pair vacuum-sealed. With an open bottle of sake in the fridge, I knew immediately the culinary experiment I was about to perform—Matsutake Sukiyaki.

I sort of remember my thinking at the time, two years ago. I had read somewhere that you could freeze firm matsutake buttons, that this was preferable to drying. Maybe someone at Puget Sound Mycological Society had recommended the technique. I had made similar experiments with porcini buttons years earlier. For whatever reason, wrapping the matsi buttons in foil was a required step. It seemed to me the best way to defrost them would be directly in the soup broth. I unwrapped the foil to find, luckily, that I had carefully cleaned the buttons and trimmed the stems before freezing. They looked a little darker but otherwise in good condition. I could smell the signature "autumn aroma" even in their cryogenic state.

And the result? The thawed mushrooms definitely imparted their essence of "red hots and dirty socks" to the soup—not as much as fresh specimens, but more than dried matsutake. The main problem was that the mushrooms were prohibitively chewy. After thawing in the soup, I removed and sliced them; next time I will either slice the thawed matsi razor-thin or cut into bite-sized pieces. As it was, I only ate the smaller slices. The main benefit to the sukiyaki was flavor rather than texture.

My experiments are not over. I still need to test the vacuum-sealed pair of buttons, and next time I'll try not to lose them in the freezer for more than a few months. Overall, I'd say the results are encouraging for matsutake fans who want to experience the mushroom's unique taste year-round.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Forager's Thanksgiving


Here in the Pacific Northwest, we're lucky to have a climate that allows for foraging year-round, even during the dark, wet days of late fall and winter. If you're hoping to include a few wild foods in your Thanksgiving feast, keep reading...

Wild Mushrooms

By late November, those of us in Washington need to think more strategically about our mushroom hunting spots. The bread-and-butter golden chanterelle harvest is mostly done by this time, the surviving specimens oversized, floppy, and waterlogged. Skiers own the mountains now and even many low-elevation habitats should be ruled out because of recurring hard frosts. Head for the coast or the southern Olympic Peninsula and look for microclimates where fungi can persist. Search out those hardier winter species such as yellowfoot chanterelles and hedgehogs. Hint: they prefer moist, mossy forests and plenty of woody decay.

If you're willing to travel, make tracks for southwestern Oregon where kings and matsutake are still available. My favorite this time of year, though, is the black trumpet, which is just starting to fruit and can be found in mixed forests with oak. Sautéed in a little butter, it tastes just like fall.

Shellfish

We're coming into the high time for shellfish. The summer spawn is over and the clams, mussels, oysters, and crabs are putting meat back in their shells, rather than using their fat reserves for reproduction.

Many a Nor'westerner likes to give a regional twist to the Turkey Day dinner, including a shellfish course of soup or stew, or simply a mess of Dungeness crabs on the table to kick off the proceedings. I try to dive for my crabs when I can, though the seafood market is a dry alternative. One year I made a Dungie crab bisque for twenty. It was time-consuming peeling all that crab—I'd recommend shelling out (pardon the pun) for lump crab meat instead—but oh so decadent and delicious. Unfortunately, by the time the labor-intensive bisque was ready, I think many of us were too deep into a Northwest wine tasting to fully appreciate it.

An elegant, tomato-based shellfish stew in the Italian tradition is a great way to charm your guests and add European flair to the American meal. I make one chock full of clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, and squid (note: Seattle's public fishing pier is host to a multi-lingual party of midnight squidders this time of year that is not to be missed). You can find my shellfish stew recipe in Fat of the Land. Or try a simple New England-style Clam Chowder, of which I have a couple recipes, here and here. Steamed littleneck clams can be easily gathered and prepared in minutes. A splash of white with a few sprigs of parsley and couple smashed garlic cloves is all it takes, or you can add a bit more prep time for Clams with Herbed Wine Sauce. Don't forget crusty bread for dipping.

The South Sound and Hood Canal are good options for digging littleneck clams and picking oysters, while razor clam digs on the sandy ocean beaches are a time-honored way to stock the larder. In Oregon, Tillamook and Netarts bays are popular with clam diggers. Check the state Fish & Wildlife web sites for information on beach openings and limits.

Greens

Some of our spring weeds reappear in fall with the cool weather. One of the better bets is wild watercress, which can be gathered in quantity and tastes so much better than its domesticated counterpart. Spice up your green salad with watercress, pair it with wild mushrooms in a stuffing, or make a soup or side dish with it.

Berries

We're lucky to have a dozen varieties of huckleberry in Washington and Oregon. Our late ripening variety is the evergreen huckleberry, Vaccinium ovatum, and it's often available right around Thanksgiving. Of all the huckleberries, it's one of the easiest to pick, with sweet berries that can be pulled off the branches in bunches, so get your fill, though be warned: as with our fall mushrooms, this is not a good evergreen huckleberry year. Should you find some, there's nothing better than a huckleberry pie or cobbler to put an exclamation mark on a wild Thanksgiving meal.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Wild Mushroom and Root Vegetable Gratin

Reconstructing restaurant dishes at home is a time-honored way to improve one's chops in the kitchen. Rather than slavishly following a recipe, the reconstruction relies on gumshoe detective work, a perilous need for improvisation, and a willingness to see the whole thing go up in flames.

Sometimes it works out. One of my best reconstructions to date is this Broiled Halibut with Licorice Fern Beurre Blanc, Truffle Butter & Root Medley.

Other times a restaurant dish can be utterly baffling in its preparation. Lucky for me, the menu at Sitka & Spruce the other night included enough clues to allow for a high probability of reconstruction success. The dish in question was written as "gratin of chanterelles, parsnips, celeriac, chard & salted pork." That's a generous quantity of info. I added mascarpone, since it obviously had cream of some sort, a few herbs and spices, and breadcrumbs, which were also plain to see on top. My other addition, which clearly wasn't in Sitka's preparation, was cauliflower mushrooms, which I used together with chanterelles (look closely at the photo and you can barely make out my car's luggage rack; this specimen was hiding mere yards from the road).

What I didn't have was the method, but a little online sleuthing gave me a sense of how I should proceed. The end result was nearly as good as the original: a nice balance between the savoriness of the pork with the sweetness of the chanterelles and parsnips, and a textural continuum that started with creamy and finished with a pleasing, though not overwhelming, crunch.

Next time I do this dish I won't bother to blanche the root vegetables; they're cut small enough to soften between the initial pan-cooking and the final baking. Also, I'll make sure the breadcrumbs are not so fine for added crunchiness. Overall, this is a definite keeper and a great use for chanterelles, which should be used generously.

1 cup celery root, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup parsnip, cut into rounds and half-rounds
1 loose cup salt pork, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 leek, white part only, diced
1 lb wild mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 cup vegetable stock
1/2 cup mascarpone
1 tbsp butter
1 cup shredded chard
1 tbsp fresh thyme
fresh nutmeg
olive oil for sauté

1. Blanche celery root and parsnip in boiling water for a few minutes, until not quite fork tender. Drain and set aside. Note: this step can be omitted if root vegetables are cut to specification.

2. Meanwhile, sauté salt pork in a lightly oiled pan over medium heat, allowing fat to render and meat to brown until edges are crispy.

3. Add diced leek and cook together until soft.

4. Add wild mushrooms and cook several minutes, until mushrooms release their water and all liquid is cooked off. Remove mixture to a bowl.

5. In same pan, melt butter over medium heat and add blanched root vegetables. Cook until lightly browned, turning a few times with a spatula.

6. Return pork-leek-mushroom mixture to pan. Add vegetable stock and allow to cook down. Next add mascarpone and stir together. Mix in shredded chard. Season with thyme and several gratings of nutmeg. Adjust for salt. Consistency should be creamy, even slightly soupy. Increase stock or mascarpone if necessary.

7. Spoon into greased ramekins, cover with breadcrumbs (preferable homemade), and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes, checking to make sure top doesn't burn.

Makes 4 small ramekins. Serve with good bread and defibrillator.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Wild Watercress Potstickers

I love potstickers so much that—until the other day—I had never cooked them at home. Make sense? They occupied a place in my mind that was beyond the kitchen, or at least my kitchen. They were enshrined, enshrouded, holy.

But the other day I came home with a big bag of wild fall watercress and decided it was time to expand the repertoire.

Watercress is one of those weeds that mocks us for our stupidity. It's incredibly tasty, loaded with nutrients, and available much of the year in many parts of the country. It dares us to act sensible and...eat it. Here in the Pacific Northwest there are viable patches of watercress nearly every month of the year. Some of those patches will grow, flower, die back, and then grow again, all within the same calendar year.

The key is to find watercress upstream of livestock and development. It's a common weed of roadside ditches, but make sure those ditches aren't beside busy highways or visited by the pesticide sprayer.

While hunting mushrooms the other day I stopped at a watercress patch. The patch was so robust that, at 50 miles per hour, you wouldn't believe it was watercress at all. It looked more like planted shrubbery. Filling a grocery bag took about 30 seconds. I nibbled some on the way home. The peppery flavor was intense. If you like arugula, you'll love watercress.

I guess I was craving potstickers, and the watercress seemed like a good flavor to match with either ground pork or tofu. In the end I made two separate fillings to keep everyone at home happy, a meat filling and a veggie filling. The wrappers were easier to make than I had expected, though I wouldn't say I've mastered the technique.

Meat Filling:

1 lb ground pork
2 loose cups watercress, finely chopped
3 green onions, finely chopped
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
white pepper

Mix ingredients in a large bowl and set aside. Makes enough for 24 potstickers.

Vegetarian Filling:

1 14-oz package firm tofu, finely chopped
2 loose cups watercress, finely chopped
3 green onions, finely chopped
1 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
white pepper

Mix ingredients in a large bowl and set aside. Makes enough for 24 potstickers.

Wrappers:

1 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup boiling water

Mix flour and salt into large bowl. Measure out a 1/2 cup of boiling water and add to bowl of dry ingredients. Stir with wooden spoon until cool enough to work with hands. Knead 5 minutes over  a lightly floured work surface until smooth. Divide into two equal balls. Roll each ball into a 12-inch snake. Slice each snake into 1/2-inch sections, about a dozen per snake. With a rolling pin, roll out each section into a round wrapper, about 3 inches in diameter. Makes about 24 wrappers.

To fill and cook potstickers:

1. Use a teaspoon to scoop a heaping amount of filling onto the middle of a wrapper. Fold over and pinch edges. Put aside. Repeat.

2. Add a 1/2 tablespoon of peanut oil to a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Arrange a dozen potstickers in a single layer. Fry a couple minutes uncovered until golden brown on bottom. Drizzle a 1/2 cup of water into the pan and cover. Cook several more minutes, until water is absorbed and cooked off. At this point I like to flip the potstickers to lightly brown the other side before serving.

Makes about 24 potstickers. Serve with a dipping sauce of soy sauce, black vinegar, sesame oil, and hot oil. You can also add chopped scallion and ginger to the sauce.