Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Game Hen with Chanterelles & Madeira over Parsnip Puree

I had dinner at Tilth the other night in Seattle, owned by award-winning chef Maria Hines. One of the standouts of the evening was a small plate of pan-fried poussin. The chef de cuisine, Larkin Young, came out and told us just how he liked to cook the bird (finishing it with a nob of sizzling butter was key, he explained), and then, as we got to talking about mushroom hunting, it occurred to me that this same dish might go really well with just a handful of small chanterelles, which I'd been saving from my trip with a commercial mushroom picker the other day. To make it more of a meal I added the parsnip puree.

1 game hen
2 tbsp butter
1 shallot, chopped
1/4 lb chanterelle buttons
splash Madeira
2 tbsp mascarpone
2 medium parsnips, peeled
heavy cream
salt and pepper
basil, chopped for garnish

1. Remove both legs (including thighs) of game hen, reserving rest of bird for another purpose. Pat dry, season, and saute over medium-high heat in half the butter, browning each side so the skin is dark and crispy and the meat tender. Add second tablespoon of butter to finish before removing legs to a plate and placing in 350 degree oven to keep warm.

2. While meat is cooking, cut parsnips into pieces, cover with water in small pot, and boil 15 minutes. Remove parsnips to food processor, add a spoonful of cooking water plus a little heavy cream, and puree.

3. Add chopped shallot to same pan and saute in pan juices until soft, a minute or two. Add mushrooms and stir. Cook another couple minutes before deglazing pan with a splash of Madeira wine. As wine and pan juices bubble and reduce, stir in a couple spoonfuls of mascarpone to thicken.

4. Remove meat from oven and pour any accumulated juices into mushroom sauce. Plate game hen leg over parsnip puree and top with chanterelles. Garnish with chopped fresh basil. Serves 2.

The fresh basil might seem a quixotic choice. It's such a strong flavor, you rarely see it used as a garnish the way you see, say, parsley. But in this case it did a really good job of balancing the sweetness of the parsnip and brightening the overall dish. Basil peaked in or garden recently and we're using it as much as possible; combined with the high season of chanterelles, the pairing seemed like a good idea—and indeed I plan to find other ways to bring these two ingredients together, idiosyncratic or not.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Transaction

On Saturday I joined Doug and his friend Jeff for another day of picking.

Hanging out with this pair reminded me of the sort of male camaraderie that develops in close quarters. You'll find it in school dormitories, on fishing boats, in hunting camps. Old pals, they knew each other's foibles and weaknesses all too well and exploited them in an ongoing banter of inside jokes, ragging, and general good-natured BS.

We drove a ways north on the Olympic Peninsula to check out a chanterelle patch only to find out another picker or crew had beaten us to it. But while settling for the dregs—only about eight or nine pounds worth—we stumbled on a few king boletes that had just come up. Kings grow fast, much faster than chanties, and it's likely they hadn't even broken through the duff when the competition had cleaned out the patch a couple days earlier. This was a key piece of information. We made tracks for another nearby patch.

A king bolete patch in full flush is a lovely sight to behold. Chanties are beautiful nuggets of gold in the dark woods, but kings are something special. I get a thrill with each find—and this thrill would come a hundred times over on these few acres of second-growth timber. This was the patch where Doug had picked 35 pounds of kings earlier in the week and another 75 pounds with the help of Jeff two days later. Here we were only a day after that haul filling our buckets again with tight no. 1 buttons, about 45 pounds in all.

This was a "day saver" (as Doug called it) for the pickers after getting scooped at the last patch. We loaded up the baskets and drove back south to Raymond to meet the buyer, Jeremy Faber of Foraged and Found Edibles, who was en route from Seattle to buy mushrooms from several Raymond-area pickers, most of them Cambodian immigrants.

Sang was in the process of cleaning his pick when we arrived. It was his house and for the use of his kitchen he'd receive a commission at the end of the night. Other nearby pickers started showing up at the back door with baskets overflowing with boletes.

Jeremy worked quickly to grade everyone's pick—he still had stops to make in Elma and Centralia. First he separated the no. 1's from the no. 2's and no. 3's. A no.1 is a firm button with a cap that hasn't fully opened. These are considered the most choice. A no. 2 is generally larger and softer than a no. 1, and no. 3's are known as "dryers"—they're better suited to dehydrating and sold dry.

Next he cut every mushroom in half to check for worms. A type of fly known as a bolete gnat lays its eggs on the mushroom and the larvae can reduce a perfect looking button into a wormy mess in a matter of hours. After cutting the mushrooms are graded out, weighed, tallied, and the picker paid in cash on the spot.

This is the moment of truth for the pickers and some can't bear to watch. A cluster of wives looked on as their husbands' work for the day was added up.

It was after 10 pm when we were finished loading up Jeremy's van with baskets of kings. Now he had to make a stop a few blocks away to pick up a hundred or so pounds of white chanterelles, then on to his other rounds. He wouldn't be home for a while yet, and even then his work on tonight's buy had only just begun. Back in Seattle—more than two hours away—he'd need to haul all the mushroom baskets into his basement walk-in for the night and start packaging up his restaurant deliveries the next day.

For their part, the pickers all went home with cash in their pockets to get some sleep before tomorrow's pick, when the whole process would repeat itself.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Picker

Doug makes his living as a full-time, year-round mushroom picker. He picks the Washington Coast near his Westport home in the fall, travels south to pick California in the winter, and marches back up the east slope of the Cascades following the spring pick, sometimes up into British Columbia if the pick is good.

The other day I tagged along with Doug to see how it was done.

To say Doug is an interesting character is to make a broad understatement. He's been a logger, served in the military, and captained a crab boat. When you drive around the Olympic Peninsula's down-at-the-heels timber communities with Doug in his $500 Buick Century sedan, you spend a lot of time waving to the people you pass, all friends or former colleagues: shake rats*, long-liners, other pickers, and those three old codgers jawing around the tailgate at the general store.

More important, at least in terms of Doug's livelihood, you also spend a lot of time visiting trees that might as well be personal friends. Within a mile or two of our meeting place we pulled over beside a fork of the Hoquiam River. A single sitka spruce of less than 100 years age was busy cranking out porcini buttons. Doug has known this tree a long time and he'll stop by for a visit every now and again to say hello and load up on the porcini that spring from its roots like Athena out of Zeus's head.

After that we visited a hedgehog patch. I found myself struggling to keep up. Doug knows exactly where the mushrooms are. He has patches up and down the West Coast, has in fact forgotten more patches than most pickers will ever know. When you follow Doug through the salal and huckleberry and old cedar slash, you're following a man who has created little trails through the forest just like the deer and elk and bears. These trails lead directly to mushrooms, which end up in his bucket by the pound, and are later emptied into baskets to be weighed by the buyer.

Doug prides himself on providing good product. His mushrooms are fresh, clean, and unblemished.

After picking hedgehogs we visited a chanterelle patch and another porcini patch. A good portion of Doug's day is spent scouting. The chanterelle patch needed another week and he figured his early porcini patch was about to pop. He predicted a 30-pound haul for the following day, and when I talked to him on the phone the next night he said it put out 35 pounds—and that was just the beginning. He'll be visiting that patch every other day for the next week or two until the patch peters out.

Meanwhile the hedgehogs were just coming on and there were always chanterelles to pick. Plenty of chanterelles. When I asked Doug why he picked, he didn't talk about the money or the virtue of hard work or the allure of being your own boss. It was all about the woods. To pick mushrooms on a daily basis is to be intimately involved in the web of life. Doug knows which salmon streams still have decent runs of wild fish, where to find the best berries, and how to lose himself in the forest's grandeur without getting lost.

Writers have an expression: a writer's writer might be unknown to the critics and taste-makers, but earning the admiration of fellow scribes is the highest honor. Doug is a picker's picker.

* A shake rat is a logger who specializes in cutting cedar shakes, or shingles.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Porcini 101: Porcini Risotto

It's fall porcini time in the Pacific Northwest. This is perhaps my favorite of all the wild mushrooms. The season is late this year because of a lack of moisture in August. I found just two porcini while backpacking in the North Cascades over Labor Day, but they were prime specimens, perfect for risotto.

After scouring the Web for risotto recipes the other day I got the impression that home cooks might appreciate a bit more explanation of what porcini is (or are, since the word is plural for porcino) and how to buy, prepare, and cook them. While I'm no expert, this is what I've learned after several years of foraging, eating, and putting up porcini.


A nice button
Porcini is Italian for a number of related edible mushrooms in the Boletus genus. The French call them ceps, the Germans steinpilz, and the Brits sometimes refer to them slangily as pennybuns. The term porcini seems to be the most widely used in culinary circles. Mycologists refer to all the species in the genus collectively as boletes. Boletes are distinguished by having pores under the caps rather than gills. Though they come in many shapes, colors, and sizes, most boletes are characterized by dome-shaped caps and thick, fleshy stems.

A mature porcino flanked by a sliced button
The most famous bolete (also considered the most choice for the table around the world) is known as the king bolete, its taxonomic name Boletus edulis, which roughly translates as "superior edible mushroom." While porcini can include a number of edible boletes, the king bolete is the one most cooks prize. It's characterized by an often large cap with a tan to brick red coloration, pores that are white or gray in young individuals and becoming yellowish to greenish-yellow in mature specimens, and a bulbous white stem with fine reticulation (netting) and sometimes a pinkish blush. Sliced open, the king's flesh is white.

Often when people say "porcini" they are referring specifically to the king bolete, Boletus edulis. The terminology becomes a little more complicated on the West Coast of North America, where we have another species commonly known as the "spring king" or spring porcini, Boletus rex-veris. You can read more about spring porcini here.

Notice the difference in color between the porcini at the top of the post and those directly above. The former are coastal king boletes from Washington picked the other day; the latter are kings from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. At some point we might see further splitting of the Boletus edulis complex of species.

Dried vs. Fresh

In Italy during summer and fall you are likely to see market stalls overflowing with boxes of fresh porcini picked from the local woods (or, more likely, imported from Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe to fill the Italian demand). Increasingly in the U.S. you might find porcini at specialty shops and farmers markets in season. In Seattle much of our local porcini is supplied by Foraged and Found Edibles. However, in general it's more common to see small packages of imported dried porcini at the market.

Porcini for sale at a Genoa market. Photo by Audrey Scott

Porcini have been known for centuries as mushrooms that respond well to drying. The drying process enables these mushroom with a short season and brief shelf life to be used any time of year, whether in season or not. Equally important, the drying process also concentrates the flavor of the mushrooms, giving them a powerful, earthy bass note that does wonders for soups, stews, sauces, and stocks. Dried porcini are primarily used as a flavoring. You extract the flavor by reconstituting the dried mushrooms in warm water for at least 20 minutes and then using the resulting mushroom stock in your cooking. The reconstituted mushrooms themselves can also be used but their texture is not as good as fresh porcini.

Fresh porcini have a mild, nutty taste and a dense, meaty texture. It's no surprise that Italians also call them "poor man's steak." You can slice and grill porcini like a cut of meat. They can be quickly sauteed over high heat but also stand up well to pro-longed cooking. Look for young, firm specimens with caps that have not fully opened—that is, they're still concave like umbrellas—and whitish pores if possible. The caps of older specimens will be plane or even convex, with yellow pores; these will be softer fleshed and cook up somewhat slimy but they still have good flavor if not the desired texture. Some sellers will slice their porcini in half to show they are not worm-infested. Small buttons are useful for presentation; sliced thinly, they retain their classic mushroom silhouette and look great on the plate.

For texture, I prefer fresh porcini. For taste, it depends on what I'm cooking. Using a combination of fresh and dried is often a way to get the best of both worlds. Usually when I use dried porcini I pulverize the mushrooms in a blender first. This porcini "dust" can be easily added to dishes to boost the flavor.


While looking over a variety of fresh porcini risotto recipes online, I was surprised to see how many recipes ask you to cook the mushrooms first and then remove them from the pan before adding the risotto rice, as if they're so fragile that they can only be added back into the dish later as a sort of frilly garnish on top. Nonsense. The whole point is to allow the rice to take on the mushroom flavor as it cooks. Besides, even after a half-hour of cooking, fresh porcini mushrooms of good quality will retain their meaty texture. Why complicate the process?

Many recipes simply use the dried porcini. This is fine out of season, though I would consider adding fresh mushrooms of some sort, even a bland supermarket variety like cremini, if only for texture. The best porcini risotto is the one that uses both fresh and dried porcini. Here's my recipe:

8 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 cup (approx 2 oz) dried porcini
1-2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, diced
1/2 lb fresh porcini, roughly chopped into 1-inch cubes
1/2 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
2 tbsp butter
4 heaping tbsp mascarpone
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 cup (or more) sweet peas (frozen is fine)
salt and pepper, to taste

1. Warm stock just below simmer in a pot on stovetop.
2. Pulverize dried porcini in blender or food processor and add to stock.
3. In a large pan suitable for risotto, saute onions, garlic, and fresh porcini in olive oil for several minutes over medium-high heat until mushrooms begin to brown ever so slightly, stirring regularly. I like to season the mixture with a few grindings of salt and pepper at this point.
4. De-glaze with white wine. When liquid has nearly bubbled off, add rice and stir well, coating thoroughly. Allow rice to cook until slightly toasted, 2-3 minutes.
5. Add 4-5 ladlefuls of stock to pan, stirring. It helps to have a risotto spoon. Reduce heat to medium-low. Continue to add a ladle or two of warm stock as the liquid is absorbed, stirring regularly, about 15-20 minutes.
6. Risotto is nearly done when creamy yet al dente and just slightly crunchy inside. Now stir in the butter, mascarpone, and half the parmesan along with a couple more ladles of stock, then mix in the peas, and cover for a few minutes.

Don't be alarmed if you have leftover stock; it's always better with risotto to have more than enough. The finished risotto should be rich and creamy. The peas add a dash of color and nice pops of texture as a counterpoint to the porcini and rice. Add salt if necessary. For a soupier risotto, add more stock. Serve with remaining parmesan as a garnish. Serves 4.

Note: For an attractive and tasty garnish, thinly slice a couple small porcini buttons and saute in butter until lightly browned, as shown in the images above and below.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Into the Elwha

Say wha'? The Elwha River Valley, on the north end of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula

Last week I backpacked into the Elwha Basin in Olympic National Park to see the place before it undergoes profound change next year. You see, in 2011 the process of undamming the Elwha will begin in earnest and five species of Pacific salmon will have a chance to re-colonize a river that historically supported large fish runs. Since most of the watershed is within the boundaries the park, the habitat remains in good shape and there are great expectations for filling the river once again with fish.

With this in mind, I decided a trip into the Elwha to see the place before the dams come down would be a good thing, a way to compare the before and after. My timing looked bad, though. Local weather guru Cliff Mass was telling his blog readers that this was a week to stay out of the mountains. A dreaded marine layer was headed our way from the Pacific with a forecast of rain every day for a week. Pigheaded as usual, I hoisted my pack anyway and walked directly into the teeth of the storm. 

The rain held off and that first evening I made it as far as the Lillian River, a major tributary, and a dark, dank foreboding place to make camp. Rodents pestered my tent all night but fortunately, with my food bags hung safely from a bear wire, nothing larger. The next  day I got deeper into the valley, leaving behind the popular destination Elkhorn Camp at the 10-mile mark to penetrate another six miles up-valley to where the Hayes River meets the Elwha. It was around Hayes that I felt civilization's shackles start to loosen—and here is an important lesson known to serious backpackers: go deep. Your destination may be labeled wilderness or national park, but the essence of the wild doesn't kick in until you're suitably removed from the trappings of town. In this case I was 16 miles up a trail and another dozen or so miles inside a national park boundary before the magic of the back-country began to percolate. 

And percolate it did. Beyond Hayes the trees got bigger and the forest took on an enchanted quality. A lush carpet of moss covered everything. Winds whistled down from surrounding peaks carrying with them the sounds of glaciers creaking and melting. The river brawled through steep canyons. A fallen tree across the trail was as tall as me in its prone position; someone had counted the rings and noted them on the cut: 560 years old, this tree was a sapling here a generation before Columbus set sail for the New World. 

On Day 3 I left base camp to hike another 11 miles into the valley, making for a 22-mile day. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the headwaters but the weather finally caught up to me. It rained all day and the mountains remained mostly hidden, socked in with fog. I had to settle for close-in views of the Elwha Basin and a look at a tumbling, roaring river that gouged out its banks and stacked enormous logjams of old-growth Douglas-fir like cordwood. In this way the river looked nearly perfect on the surface. But I knew that deep within those dark blue pools behind the logjams—ideal shelter for salmon fry—the currents were empty of anadromous fish. For now.

At Happy Hollow, the last shelter on the trail before it becomes a climbing route, I ran into three trekkers who had just come down from the Bailey Traverse, a famous bushwhack through a remote range in the Olympics that has never seen a designated trail. The trekkers had a fire going to dry their gear and seemed both exhilarated from their multi-day expedition and glad to be found. They had spent a full day lost in the hills and told me they were two days behind schedule and worried that a search party might be sent after them. I agreed to notify a ranger of their whereabouts on my way out.

The mushrooms were just starting to pop and they seemed to grow right in front of my eyes, the shiny red caps of Russulas emerging where there had been only moss just a few hours earlier, and hedgehogs clustering in the darkest patches of forest. I made dinner with a medley of wild mushrooms, including chanterelles, lobsters, and hedgehogs. I also caught rainbow trout and released them back into the river where they will seed the future stocks of steelhead that will hopefully reclaim the river once the dams are gone.

Trips like this got me foraging in the first place and when I reemerged on Day 5 to find my car in the parking lot, the spell of the wild was still on me. I drove back to Seattle in a daze, blissfully unaware of the traffic, neon signs, and hurly-burly of the city, at least for a little while.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Huckleberry Streusel Coffee Cake

Congratulations to Lorna Yee over at The Cookbook Chronicles for winning my first ever recipe contest with her truly decadent Huckleberry Streusel Coffee Cake. You might recall I posted the call to action way back in February after tiring of the usual ho-hum Huckle Buckle.

The judges included everyone in my immediate household, and while we sampled lots of delicious coffee cakes that did donuts around my humble Buckle, I suspect it was Lorna's topping that finally gave her the edge, especially with the young judges here at FOTL Headquarters.

Click here for Lorna's Huckleberry Streusel Coffee Cake recipe.

Full disclosure: I know Lorna, who writes for Seattle Magazine and is a regular on the local food scene. But her recipe delighted my kids, and for that she is the winner. Thanks to everyone who entered—and please accept my apologies for having to wait until now to find out who won. At least huckleberries are now fresh and in season for those who want to try the winning recipe.

By the way, you can find a similar recipe for Blueberry Streusel Muffins in Lorna's new book (co-authored with Ali Basye), The Newlywed Kitchen, which is a treasure-trove of lovebird kitchen fun—even for those of us with more distinct memories of diaper-changing fiascos than honeymoons.

Photo at top by Lorna Yee.