Thursday, June 24, 2010

Little Pigs of Spring

As feared, the sudden warming trend in my region caused a massive blowout of spring porcini ("little pigs" in Italian) at the lower elevations. I know you PacNor'westers have been craving sun and wondering if summer would ever show its face, but the same weather patterns that conspired to make this an epic morel year have put the kibbosh on our spring kings. Some of my patches haven't produced at all this year while others are putting out a fraction of their usual production—and now one of my best patches is a worm-riddled mess.

Such conditions test the mushroom hunter. My advice: Know your habitat. Identify microclimates that will fare better in off years. As always, try to catch the vanguard of the first flush at a given elevation. I picked this one patch for the last three weeks. Week One, when I would have expected a good fruiting, only a few scattered buttons showed, amounting to maybe five pounds. Week Two, which I'll write about more in depth in a moment, saw more of the same, with the buttons still trying to pop, a ten-pound day. Now I'm remembering those first two weeks fondly. Yesterday, Week Three, was my third trip to the same patch. The last few days we've become reacquainted with that shy fireball in the sky and I had an inkling of what I might find. Sure enough, porcini littered the woods, poundage of it, old flags and young buttons alike wormed out beyond repair. It was a sad affair. I picked about 30 pounds, maybe a tenth of what I saw, and of that three-quarters went either straight into the dryer or into the garbage.

Mushroom hunters live by the weather and suffer by it.

David Aurora says the spring kings (Boletus rex-veris) fruit in most of the mountain ranges west of the Rockies, including the northern Sierra, Cascades, and Blues. As far as I know there are no records of spring porcini in the coastal mountains. They seem to require drier conditions. In the Cascades we only find them on the eastern slopes, usually when the trilliums have turned from white to purple and the morels are tailing off.

With all varieties of porcini, I look for the heavier timber, particularly true firs and spruce. The sort of cutover and abused landscapes in which morels flourish don't seem as fruitful for the boletes, and this is one of the reasons I enjoy hunting porcini even more than morels. A day of not finding porcini is still a beautiful hike on the sunny side of the mountains. I've seen lots of wildlife while looking for spring kings, from big bucks to angry goshawks. The other day at dusk I watched a fox saunter across a logging road and into the woods as if taking an evening stroll. He could have worn a sweater vest and I wouldn't have been surprised in the least.

This year I had the pleasure of introducing my Sacramento friends Hank Shaw and Holly Heyser to porcini hunting. You might know them for their excellent, award-winning blogs, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook and NorCal Cazadora. Hank and Holly spend a lot of time in the bush with a shotgun or rifle at the ready, so mushroom hunting was an instant hit. So much is the same: the need to understand habitat and ecosystems; a willingness to slow down and allow the natural world to inform you; the thrill of the chase; and the addiction that springs from that first brush with success.

We visited a few of my regular spots and it was clear that the season was way behind schedule. Areas that would normally sport lots of flags by now—blown-out and maggot-ridden porcini that tell you you're in the right place—were just beginning to produce little buttons hiding under the duff. These buttons, sometimes called "mushrumps" by pot hunters, are known as #1's to commercial foragers because they're graded the highest on the desirability scale and earn the most money. They're firm, with caps that haven't fully opened up and white or grey pores. These are the ones to slice thinly and eat fresh with a salad. Unlike most wild mushrooms, young porcini can be eaten uncooked in small amounts. The flavor is quite a bit different this way, and surprisingly un-fungal.

That night in camp we ended up garnishing a salad of wild violets with fresh porcini and a simple dressing of olive oil and chinese rice wine. We cooked up Italian sausages in water infused with fir tips along with a saute of onions, green peppers, morels, and porcini. The finished dish was simple the way camping fare ought to be, yet bursting with the sort of local and seasonal ingredients you find in fine restaurants. Luckily for Hank and me, for dessert I only brought a small bottle of whiskey, so the next morning we were up and at 'em again.

When I got home with my catch I decided to imitate a dish I'd had at the Herbfarm the night before our porcini outing. This was my first visit to one of the Northwest's most celebrated restaurants and all I can say is the nine-course meal with accompanying wine flights was truly awesome. Our host Ron Zimmerman is no namby-pamby on the pour either. (Next time we'll book a room at the Inn.) Marty called it the single best meal of her life. I decided it was in my top two of all time, neck-and-neck with last holiday's pilgrimage to Eleven Madison in New York. But the Herbfarm surpassed that renowned eatery at the local angle, with scrupulous attention paid to seasonal ingredients from nearby places.

For my home-cooked version of an Herbfarm dish, I roasted porcini two ways. I chopped up the stems and caps of a few larger, soft-fleshed specimens to make a sauce, and also thinly sliced a couple buttons for the garnish. The sauce I ladled on the plate and topped with a fillet of wild Alaskan chinook and sauteed fava beans; the roasted porcini buttons decorated the dish.

Roasted Porcini Sauce

This is a good use for those larger, floppier kings that have gone soft in the flesh. Usually such specimens are bug-infested, and even decent ones are only suitable as dryers, but occasionally you find mature boletes with yellow pores that have somehow avoided the flies. These are perfect for making sauce.

1 lb porcini, cleaned and cut into small cubes
1 handful dried porcini
olive oil
several sprigs fresh thyme, chopped
several springs fresh oregano, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
chicken stock (optional)
salt and pepper

1. Reconstitute dried porcini in 1 cup warm water. Set aside for 30 minutes. When ready, wring out excess water back into container and reserve mushroom stock for later.

2. Saute shallot and garlic in a couple tablespoons of olive oil until soft. Stir in both fresh and reconstituted porcini. Cook, stirring, several minutes until lightly browned, using more olive oil if necessary. Add fresh herbs, a few grindings of pepper, and a generous amount of salt and cook another minute.

3. Deglaze with wine. I used a Riesling to get a sweeter edge. When wine is mostly cooked off, slowly add mushroom stock.

4. Blend mixture with an immersion blender (or use a food processor). Finish with chicken stock (optional) to desired consistency.

Wild Salmon with Favas and Roasted Porcini Sauce

For the final plate you'll want to broil a good cut of wild salmon (10 minutes per inch of thickness), roast a button or two of prime, thinly-sliced porcini, and saute the favas. I roasted my porcini in a cast iron skillet with olive oil, a couple smashed cloves of garlic, and a few rough-cut springs of thyme, plus seasoning. When I'd gotten a nice browning on both sides I tossed in a pat of butter and let it foam in the pan, then removed the porcini to a bowl. I quickly sauteed the favas in the same pan as the salmon finished, then arranged all the elements on the plate. Seasonal goodness.

I've written numerous posts about spring porcini. Click these links for:


Mari said...

Please don't stop blogging!! As a foraging newbie I often don't know when to expect various plants to be ready. I live in Michigan so I'm a few weeks behind you. Your blog is perfect! When you blog about a plant I have a week or 2 to get my act together to go on the lookout. I would be clueless without your head's up.

Thank you so much!

matt said...

fantastic stuff. Porcini are my favorite of mushrooms. I agree the dinner at Herbfarm was just incredible. I just wish the wine hadn't flowed so freely, so I could remember more of it!

Russell Hews Everett said...

About a month ago I got six pounds of them around Lake Wenatchee (and left at least that much behind), though only about two pounds were really grade A. Been a weird season, but I think it's going to be a great Chanterelle season in the fall. That sauce looks excellent, I'll give it a try if I find any on my next trip out!

Langdon Cook said...

Mari - No work stoppage in sight--though you might see a slowdown in August when we make like Europeans and disappear.

Matt - Return visit to the Herbfarm for the fall mushroom menu?

Russell - Rumors of coastal chanties are already on the Interwebs. Could be a fall to remember.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Sad to see your porcini season has not measured up to the morel season, but we sure had a hell of a time! I thought about trying that Herbfarm dish, but was tipsy by then so I forgot some key details. I suspect it was part of Ron's nefarious plan.

As for chanterelles, i found the beginnings of them in the woods of Gloucester, Massachusetts last weekend. They're coming...